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Research to Practice: A Quality Work Force

by Jane M. Schierloh

Do workers in American companies have adequate intellectual skills? "No," said employers at a roundtable on work force literacy cosponsored by the Education Commission of the States and The Sears Roebuck Foundation (A Quality Work Force: America's Key to the Next Century, 1988). Participants were business people in the automobile industry, insurance, telecommunications, the food industry, journalism, merchandising, and manufacturing.

In this summary, we distill some comments that capture the essence of participants' perspectives. As you read their comments about the "gap between what's needed and what's there," as one participant put it, think about the implications for those who are planning and delivering workforce basic skills training.

Fundamentals of Reading, Writing, and Math
"We could talk a lot... about higher-order skills, cognitive skills and deficiencies in those areas. But at a very fundamental level, we need to address basic reading, writing andarithmetic skills. I'm talking about skills at the 5th-grade, the 6th- or 7th-grade level. We're finding in many of our locations across the country that high school graduates who are being interviewed for jobs can't pass basic tests in those areas."

Capacity to Use Reading, Writing, and Math to Think
"I think we need to talk about not only the ability to, say, add and subtract, multiply and divide, but also the ability to know even to do those things. As our industry evolves, we find that day-to-day, routine work is no longer there... people need to be more innovative, better able to react to non-routine circumstances. That's where the 'application' part, the problem-solving part, comes in."

"...old distinctions between low-skill, middle-skill and high-skill jobs just don't hold any more. Now even the operators in the textile mills in the South, in modern plants where the work is being restructured, are being asked to evidence higher-order cognitive thinking."

"When you confront something new, the important problem is not how to produce the right answer, but figuring out how to organize resources to create competence."

"...the current mode of public education is based on a 1940's model, which was basically a manufacturing model... based on repetition, on routine. So part of the problem may be that public education has been a system for delivering information rather than for discovering knowledge."

Personal Capacities: Personal Development, Work Ethic, Self-discipline, Team Work
"[We need] personal development as well as literacy. Our people need to understand what being a corporate citizen means, what it means to work, what working requires in the way of personal discipline... All of these things have to be taught."

"Restructuring work requires team capacity. Yet schools never, or very rarely, organize learning in team situations."

"I think one critical aspect of what we might call 'personal capacity' would be flexibility in the workplace. Now that the 1940's manufacturing model is outdated, we need to be able to change continuously. Perhaps the education system could address that in some way."

"...we're moving rapidly toward a much more participative workforce environment. We're now saying to employees, 'What if you don't have a supervisor? You're it. You're the one who has to run this place. Don't just sit there and follow orders; we're asking you to think!' For some of our people, that's challenging and exciting. For others, it's very scary."

Ethics and Integrity
"I agree with what has been said about basic skills, but I'm concerned about an additional area -this thing called ethics or integrity."

"It is absolutely heart-breaking to see the relative ease with which impressionable young people who are dealing with money and merchandise fall into the trap of thinking that part of that money or merchandise somehow or other belongs to them. It's a huge work-related deficiency in our business."

Lifelong Learning

"How do we begin to give the employees sitting in our shops today the concept of lifelong learning? If we can give them this concept, they're going to pass it on to their children, and those children are in school. My question is: How do we make a cultural change?"

"The skill that keeps emerging as the basic skill is reading... So many other things seem to be taken care of if you read well... Somehow we've got to have people who... continue reading, because that's the capacity to continue learning... But if the ability and desire to read are not present, you are cut off from the knowledge you could attain on your own. You're cut off from the continuing quest."

Implications of this Report for Workplace Literacy
This report raises some interesting questions for those who are concerned about basic education and literacy in the workplace. Employers, union leaders, workers, and workplace literacy providers might find it productive to sit down together and discuss the following questions in order to arrive at a consensus on the direction that workplace literacy efforts should take.

  1. How can workers be helped to master the fundamentals of reading, writing, and math? How should these skills be measured?
  2. How can curriculum in workplace literacy settings be designed to give learners practice in using reading, writing, and math for problem solving?
  3. How can basic education instructors in workplace settings design curriculum and select teaching methods that encourage teamwork and self-discipline?
  4. How can issues of ethics and personal integrity be addressed instructionally?
  5. What characterizes a lifelong learner? How can these qualities be developed and nurtured in workplace literacy programs?

A Quality Work Force: America's Key to the Next Century is a report co-sponsored by the Education Commission of the States and the Sears-Roebuck Foundation. Copies of this book are available for $8.50 through the ECS Distribution Center, 1860 Lincoln Street, Denver, Colorado 80295. Ask for No. AL-89-1.

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