It should not surprise many people that the unemployment rate among Americans without a high school degree is 15 percent -- some 40 percent higher than the national average. What is surprising is how little attention is given to providing the literacy and basic education services needed to help these Americans find jobs and advance in the workplace. We live and work in the information age where email, computers and digital tools are supposed to make life easier for people, but for those with literacy issues, they face greater challenges securing work and providing for their families.
When President Obama announces his new jobs program, ironically after Labor Day, it needs to include education and workforce training for the some 30 million American adults that have a below third grade reading level. Too many of these adults lack the basic reading, writing, math, computer, and English language skills to even be considered for a new job. The president and Congress need to boost funding for the Workforce Investment Act, the largest source of federal funding for adult literacy and basic education programs. Sadly, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act failed to provide additional funding for Workforce Investment Act (WIA) despite the obvious need. Now, it is even more critical that funding for WIA be included in Obama's new jobs program.
The gap between those with and without a diploma will not shrink without a strategy to address this education dropout crisis. And time is of the essence. The Center for Post Secondary and Economic Success estimates that by 2018, only 10 percent of the jobs available will be open to those who fail to complete high school and that an estimated 64 percent of all jobs in the U.S. will require at least a two year degree.
In addition to supporting basic adult education, WIA was created to encourage public-private partnerships to establish workforce development services so at-risk youth, adult learners, English-language students, and the chronically unemployed could get the basic education and workplace skills they need to get and keep a job.
A recent ProLiteracy survey among our 1,000 member programs uncovered that more than 75 percent of programs reported a waiting list increase in part because of growing demand from out of work adults. Currently, 40 percent of students who are seeking literacy and education services from our member programs are unemployed, a figure that increased from 35 percent just one year ago.
Making matter worse is that in many states, students looking for basic adult education classes -- including literacy, English as a second language and GED preparation -- will have to pay tuition for the first time. Since many students in such programs are poor, the fear is that thousands of current students will drop out and potential new student won't even sign up. This fee-based scenario is playing out in communities around the country including Palm Beach, Florida. Worse, some programs have stopped services, as was the case with the Erie, Pa., Adult Learning Center, which no longer had funds to keep their doors open.
The benefits to providing a path to a diploma are far-reaching. Analysts estimate that if four million high school dropouts go on to earn their diploma, the positive impact to state and federal government coffers would increase by $25 billion annually from increased payroll and sales taxes.
President Obama and Congress need to work closely with the adult education community to ensure that adequate funding is allocated for our nation's public workforce and adult education system, in addition to the vital community-based organizations that serve these adults. This investment is vital for getting more American's back to work now and ensuring more Americans are trained for the jobs needed to fuel future economic growth and competitiveness.