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volume 2

volume 3


Infusing the Workplace Into General ABE/GED/ESL Programs

Linda Thistlethwaite
Western Illinois University


"How can we help you to achieve your goals?" is a question often asked of adult learners during the intake interview in preparation for entering an adult literacy program. Adult educators recognize that adult learners enter adult literacy programs for a variety of reasons (Beder, 1991; Demetrion, 1994, Wikelund, et al, 1992).

Even a quick perusal of the literature shows that one recognized reason for participation in adult literacy programs has been to learn skills to gain employment or to increase employment opportunities, either for advancement in the adult�s present job or for changing jobs (Texas Education Agency, 1991). As much as 25% of America�s labor force (20-27 million adults) lacks the basic reading, writing, and math skills necessary to perform in today�s increasingly complex job market (Gorman, 1988, p. 56). High percentages of groups having low basic skills are persons who have frequent arrests, unwed mothers, welfare recipients, or high school drop outs; many are unemployed (Carnevale et al , 1988). Barton and Kirsch (1990) point out that among these groups high percentages are minorities, thus adding greater complexity to the issue from the standpoint of social policy.

The following discussion focuses on three issues related to the adult learner as worker. First the importance of work to adult literacy programs will be addressed. Second, four specific ways that adult literacy programs with different goals and within different settings can infuse a worker orientation into the program will be examined. Finally, special considerations regarding the issue of work ethics as related to the adult worker focus of adult literacy programs will be considered.

The Importance of Work to Adult Literacy Programs

Those involved in adult literacy are seeking answers to the following questions. Should there be a workplace focus or a workforce focus? What exactly is meant by basic work skills? How can adult educators balance the adult�s need for general educational advancement as well as education to become an effective worker with the adult�s need for immediate employment? Today, the lines between a "workplace" focus and a "workforce" focus are becoming blurred, with programs recognizing the importance of being sensitive to the needs and concerns of workers as well as considering the needs and concerns of the workplace (Grognet, 1997). Just as the definitions of workplace and workforce are blurring and thus becoming more inclusive and comprehensive, the definition of what is basic to workplace/workforce skills is also becoming more comprehensive, including problem-solving, interpersonal, and leadership skills as well as reading, writing and computation skills. The distinction between education and work is also blurring. With the reauthorization of the 1965 Adult Education Act as The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (Public Law 105-220), adult literacy programs will have to work with state and local Workforce Investment Boards to develop programs that help create a better-educated workforce.

Levels of Infusion

Possibilities for infusing the workplace into adult literacy programs lie in four different directions. At the most basic level,Level 1, a workforce orientation is infused into the teaching of academics. Infusing a workforce orientation into the teaching of academics is a school-work connection that ANY teacher can make. To teach literacy skills, teachers might use texts that provide work information. When teaching grammar or paragraph writing, they might use as a vehicle memos that an employer or employee might write. As they teach particular skills, they might show how that skill would be applicable in the workplace. For example, when having the adults work cooperatively on a project, teachers can make the tie to group problem-solving in the workplace.

At Level 2, one or more courses with a general workforce orientation is developed. These courses are based on an understanding of what employers want in terms of general basic skills, typically including such activities as having the adult develop an employment plan and perhaps seek employment and apply for specific positions. A more advanced job-preparedness course might focus on initial employee activities and job-keeping skills, perhaps with on-the-job training experiences. Both soft skills for employment (behaviors) and hard skills for employment (content knowledge and process knowledge) are addressed.

At Level 3, the adult literacy course is tied to a specific type of employment opportunity, e.g., retailing, food services, data processing, etc. These courses need to be based on a firm understanding of what employers in specific occupational areas expect in terms of employee skills. Specific job analysis and knowledge of occupational standards are important to this level of workplace infusion. To comply with recent welfare legislation, adult literacy program personnel are looking to develop short courses in specific employment areas that will enable adults on welfare to enter the workforce as quickly as possible.

At Level 4, the adult literacy class is tied to a specific employer - whether the course itself is taught at the workplace or at the adult literacy center. Since adults in these programs are already on the job, literacy, math, technology, and problem-solving skills are typically taught using the actual materials and situations the adults encounter in their jobs. Though requiring more time and commitment in terms of networking, these types of programs tend to be among the most successful.

Work Ethics: A Basic Problem

One cannot talk about employment-oriented courses without discussing a major problem that adult educators who teach these courses may need to address. One might think that the major problem a teacher would have is planning what to teach, involving such questions as the following: What do area employers believe are basic skills for entry level jobs? What do adults in adult literacy programs need to know about how to search for a job, how to present oneself in a positive light at the job interview, and how to be successful on the job? Of the various workplace curricula available, which is most appropriate? How does one best utilize course time in order to cover all that is important? Have other programs developed workplace curricula specific to an employment area that a particular adult literacy program is interested in so that the program does not have to reinvent the wheel? Although these are all worthy questions, informal conversations with teachers who teach employment skills courses indicate that more difficult problems revolve around teaching work ethics rather than work skills. Though many adult learners in these programs do have strong work ethics and are anxious to learn, others do not have well-developed work ethics and may not particularly be interested in learning them. An in-depth look at "work ethics" problems that an adult educator teaching a general employability skills course (Level 2 infusion) might encounter and possible solutions to these dilemmas can be revealing.


All adult literacy programs, whether a part of a large community college in a large city with many business connections or a small rural program not affiliated with an institution of higher earning and with few opportunities to interface with local businesses, can prepare their adult learners for the workplace. This preparation might involve personnel whose main responsibility is to develop business partnerships and establish relevant courses or simply individual classroom teachers who strive to make learning relevant by tying classroom activities to the world of work. All programs can find ways to infuse a workplace/workforce focus. (1) General academic courses can be structured to have a focus on work. (2) One or more general job-preparedness courses can be developed. (3) Job skills courses can be tied to specific occupational areas. (4) Via a cooperative venture with a specific employer, an adult literacy course can focus on the specific skills and content knowledge needed by specific workers in specific jobs for that employer. The reauthorization of the Adult Education Act as the 1998 Workforce Investment Act and the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, shifting the focus for welfare families from education in general to education-to-work as quickly as possible, leave no doubt regarding the importance of work to adult literacy programs.