The Basic Skills Crisis: A Barrier to Answering the President’s Postsecondary Call to Action

February 19, 2013

Four years ago, in his first address to Congress, President Obama challenged every American to obtain at least one year of training past high school, “be it at a community college or a four-year school, vocational training or an apprenticeship,” so that each person could be part of the nation’s immediate recovery and long-term economic growth.

This focus on postsecondary credentials has been an essential part of the path to economic recovery for the nation and economic opportunity for individuals. While the unemployment situation has improved, those hardest hit — workers unemployed for six months or longer — are having a difficult time finding work. At the same time, there are 3.5 million unfilled jobs, in part because employers can’t find workers with the skills needed for the position. According to a Manpower survey, 52 percent of American employers struggled to fill critical positions in 2011, up from just 14 percent in 2010. By 2018, 64 percent of jobs in the United States will require postsecondary education or training.

Given these trends, the President’s postsecondary education call to action four years ago and the policies that followed to expand access to education have been a necessity. But there has been one major barrier to success: too many Americans do not have the basic skills necessary to start on this path. There are 88 million Americans who have at least one of the following significant barriers to succeeding in postsecondary education and training: low literacy, limited English language skills or the lack of a high school diploma. That’s nearly 90 million Americans who will not be able to answer the President’s call to action unless they gain access to adult basic education programs that help them increase their basic skills.

We have seen this throughout the country. Even when public investments are made to expand access to postsecondary education, basic skills are still a barrier. For example, in Michigan, one-third of the displaced auto workers entitled to publicly funded re-training at a local community college through the No Worker Left Behind initiative couldn’t enroll because of limited basic reading and math skills.

Unfortunately, we are throwing pennies at this problem. Fewer than 3 million individuals are served by federally-funded adult basic education programs each year. In 49 states plus the District of Columbia, there are already 160,000 people on waiting lists for literacy, numeracy and English language services; this is more than double the number of people in 2008.

Lack of access to these programs not only harms families stuck in low-wage, low-skill employment, or shut out of the labor market altogether; it hurts our industries and our economy as the need for a more educated workforce becomes greater.

Given the themes in his inaugural address, it is likely that in his upcoming State of the Union address, President Obama will once again call for investments in postsecondary education and training. But he must address the basic skills crisis that stands between 90 million people and the call to action he made four years ago. The President should call on Congress to make substantial investments in innovative programs that help people improve their reading, math and English language skills in the context of learning about or training for an occupation or preparing for further postsecondary education.

Our people are our nation’s greatest potential asset. If the President truly wants to leverage this asset, he must put meaningful investments and policy on the table, and he must back them up with political will.