Challenge to Our Workforce: Young Adults and Low Literacy

Challenge to Our Workforce: Young Adults and Low Literacy

Nearly 70 percent of youth who drop out of school have poor literacy and other core skills. Indeed, this is the primary reason why they leave school. Yet most funding for dropouts is targeted to those who are most job ready, focusing on quick placement in the workforce. This is true of both current funding and the dollars earmarked for workforce development in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It is true as well of many private funders. This must change if we are to help this large population become financially independent.

In New York, poor literacy and other core skills affect about 100,000 youth; nationally, the number is more than two million. Without intensive and sustained education, these youth will not gain the skills they need to succeed in a twenty-first century economy.

Our current approach to the problem hardly makes sense in light of today's economic realities, which put young people in direct competition for jobs with more mature and experienced adults. Changes in federal and state guidelines for the use of public dollars will be necessary to provide longer-term, intensive skill building that truly meets the needs of young people and our economy. Private funders need to work with their grantees to identify interim gains, short of a job or a GED, so that young people have the time to advance by gaining core skills.

"The U.S. economy is changing rapidly in ways that have disastrous consequences for workers who lack the new basic skills skills that were unnecessary for many good jobs even fifteen years ago," wrote economists Richard Levy and Frank Murnane, of MIT and Harvard, respectively, nearly a dozen years ago. "There are the 'hard skills', including the ability to do basic mathematics and to understand written instructions. There are the soft skills, including the ability to communicate clearly and to work productively in groups to solve problems. And there are the elementary computer skills."

The cost of our failure to provide generations of disconnected youth with these "new basics" is tragic for the individuals involved and depletes neighborhoods of large numbers of young people in the most productive years of their lives.

Andrew Sum, a researcher at Northeastern University who has specialized in the problem, has calculated that the combined income and tax losses from all dropouts in a single year is about $192 billion or 1.6 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

The good news is that there is no need to invent solutions to the problem. While there has been increased attention paid recently to youth who struggle in high school or fail to graduate, there has been little recognition of the remarkable progress young people are making when provided with the right tools.

Take April, for example. She dropped out of high school in New York City but eventually got an undergraduate degree and won a prize at CUNY for her work. "When I was coming up in New York City, I didn't attend school much," she told New Youth Connections, a newspaper written by young people. "I went to ninth grade for maybe a month. But I didn't have the skills to keep up." Homeless and out of school at 18, April enrolled in a demanding program of education with strong personal supports. She passed the GED and got her BA in literature and writing. Now headed for a master's, she hopes to teach literature at a community college. "It wasn't that I was unable to learn. I just needed the opportunity and a safe space to root myself and grow," she says.

As April's case shows, we have learned a lot about how to address the low-skills problem. Not only can many of these youth attain higher skills; increasingly, there is evidence that they can succeed in postsecondary education, an essential step to success in the labor market.

Indeed, over the last several years, in several cities, departments of education, nonprofit organizations, and private funders have undertaken the fight against low educational attainment among young adults. The results have been impressive. For example, New York City Department of Education transfer high schools, dedicated to serving a low-skills population, boast graduation rates three times that of the regular large high schools.

Similarly, Community Education Pathways to Success (CEPS), a program for youth between the ages of 16 and 24 who have dropped out and read below the eighth-grade level, has shown promising results since its inception in 2005. According to an independent evaluation by Campbell-Kibler Associates, CEPS participants averaged literacy gains of 1.5 years and math gains of nearly one year in less than one semester of study. After a year of program experience, organizations serving these youth have doubled the number of students they serve while keeping the same level of increase in literacy levels. CEPS college component has placed more than one hundred formerly disconnected youth in college with promising retention and credit attainment.

Scaling-up programs and supports for these youth will require dedicated public funding and the development of policies based on successful models that stress literacy and other core skills as a more important priority than quick job placement. Looking beyond the stimulus package, key legislation coming up over the next two years to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act must be modified away from a focus on quick job placement toward the drivers of longer-term career success. And funding for the legislation should be increased sharply. It is outrageous that this, the major source of public funds for dropouts, serves fewer than one thousand youth annually in New York City. Several private funders in New York and Michigan are supporting prototype programs so that public money, when it flows, will be used well.

Still, while public and private sector leaders in New York City recognize the problem, they are handcuffed by federal guidelines for the use of the funds and the way that success is measured. Now is a time when all of those involved in youth work and in building a strong labor force, must come together to convince our legislators to bring about change.

The challenge we face did not emerge overnight. It derives from a combination of historical inequities and institutional failures. Programs by themselves are not a silver bullet. A coordinated and aggressive campaign building on efforts that have demonstrated success and that incorporate policy, program, and long-term investment can enable these young people to move forward to their futures, and thus ensure the future of our communities.

Peter Kleinbard is executive director of the Youth Development Institute.