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Despite recent improvements in national employment rates, hiring and retaining skilled employees for frontline roles remains a persistent challenge for industries like food and beverage, retail, logistics and transportation, and wholesale distribution.

Mark Vineis

President and CEO, ProLiteracy

One significant contributing factor is that more than half of American adults (54%) read below a sixth-grade level and nearly 1 in 5 (about 48 million) read below a third-grade level, limiting their reading comprehension to simple, short sentences.

Low literacy levels make it far more difficult for an individual to get a job, maintain a job, or make family-sustaining wages. For low-literate adults who are employed, the likelihood of career advancement and increased pay is often quashed by their lack of reading, digital, and critical-thinking skills.

In 2023, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that someone without a high school diploma earned, on average, $708 per week. That’s three times less than the average $2,109 earned by someone with advanced degrees. The inability to earn higher wages means adults with less education are often stuck in generational poverty, with housing, food, and education insecurities. Lack of reliable transportation and childcare can also create barriers to work attendance.

Employers are also feeling the strain of low literacy. The Adult Literacy and Learning Impact Network (ALL IN) recently commissioned a study with FTI Consulting to survey 500 frontline employers across the country. The study overwhelmingly found that most employers recognize that they’ve faced literacy challenges, whether limited or widespread, while hiring or training employees. One-third of employers said their average employee does not possess enough literacy skills to do their current job well, and 40% said that low literacy is widespread in their company.

Without a fully literate workforce, employers wrestle with low employee retention rates, lost productivity, and declining revenue. Employers surveyed in the ALL IN study estimate that they will lose $46 billion in revenue over the next year as a direct result of low literacy.

Investing in adult education

Upskilling our workforce strengthens our economy, and investing in adult education is a win-win. Adult education helps build a more qualified workforce and increases earning potential for frontline workers to take home family-sustaining wages. It is estimated that bringing every American adult to at least a sixth-grade reading level would pump $2.2 trillion dollars into the economy.

Adult literacy programs across the nation, many supported by ProLiteracy, improve lives every day by upskilling adults and positioning them to enter or advance in the workforce. Yet we are reaching fewer than 10% of adults in need of literacy support.

Partnerships between employers and adult education programs are one way to reach more adults.

Innovative, employer-funded workplace education programs that provide adults with access to on-site services or digital learning tools and virtual instruction are an easy way to invest in and upskill their workforce.

ProLiteracy is partnering with Guild to help working adults grow personally and professionally through education. Through Guild’s online Career Opportunity Platform, companies like Target, Tyson Foods, Chipotle, and Pitney Bowes are funding employee access to ProLiteracy New Readers Press high school equivalency courses and virtual tutoring. 

Employers that invest in educating their employees and closing the skills gap can promote from within, build employee loyalty, and reduce turnover, resulting in improved productivity and revenue.

Learn more about ProLiteracy and access its collection of free workforce resources on its website

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