Literacy, Numeracy– Crisis for U.S. Business: Lack of Basic Skills Threatens U.S. Ability to Compete Globally — Its Core…

Literacy is ‘core’ for the success of any business, organization, democracy… it’s the ability to read and write one’s own name, read basic information, write coherently, and think critically about written word. The inability to do so is called ‘illiteracy’ or analphabetism…

Strictly defined, illiteracy means the inability to read and write. Nuanced definitions take into account the context and purpose of the reading task; simple tasks may only require recognizing individual printed words, whereas complex skills involve comprehending the words and logic of a substantial piece of text. Some experts would include the inability to perform simple arithmetic, this deficiency is also labeled as ‘innumeracy’.

Together these rudimentary language and math abilities are often described collectively as ‘basic skills’… A few statistics: U.S. adults ranked 12th among 20 high income countries in composite (document, prose, and quantitative) literacy. More than 20% of adults read at or below a fifth-grade level – far below the level needed to earn a living wage. 44 million adults in the U.S. can’t read well enough to read a simple story to a child.

Approximately 50% of the nation’s unemployed youth age 16-21 are functional illiterate, with virtually no prospects of obtaining good jobs. More than three out of four of those on welfare, 85% of unwed mothers and 68% of those arrested are illiterate. About three in five of U.S. prison inmates are illiterate.

Nearly half of the nation’s adults are poor readers or functionally illiterate. They can’t carry out simply tasks like balancing check books, reading drug labels or writing essays for a job. 21 million Americans can’t read at all, 45 million are marginally illiterate and one-fifth of high school graduates can’t read their diplomas. 46% of U.S. adults cannot understand the label on prescription medicine. 50% of U.S. adults are unable to read an eighth grade level book…

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines literacy as the– ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society

Numeracy is defined as the ability to reason and to apply simple numerical concepts. Basic numeracy skills that consist of comprehending fundamental mathematics like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. For example, if one can understand simple mathematical equations such as, 2 + 2 = 4, then one would be considered possessing at least basic numeric knowledge. In the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report shows that among the western world countries the U.S. ranks 24th (i.e., last position)…

Workplace illiteracy is considered a business and social problem when workers are not able to read or write well enough to function optimally on the job… Perhaps most alarming is the fact that the highest levels of functional illiteracy can be found among the young, specifically, in the 18- to 30-year-old age bracket… At the heart of illiteracy in the U.S. is rapidly changing technology, and most importantly, the computerization of business and industry…

It’s not only computerization that has changed the workplace; however, the internal structures of many businesses are changing. For decades, a company would be neatly divided between managers, who did the thinking, and the rank-and file-employees, who carried out management’s ideas and plans. Nowadays, input and, especially, creative thinking are sought at all levels. Many believe meeting these challenges necessitates a literate, if not highly literate, work force…

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In the article Importance of Good Writing Skills by Randall S. Hansen and Katharine Hansen write: Academicians and business people view writing skills as crucial, yet increasing numbers of these professionals note steady erosion in the writing abilities of graduates. The summary of a study published in Personnel Update states: Writing skills … of executives are shockingly low, indicating that schools and colleges dismally fail with at least two-thirds of the people who pass through the education pipeline coming out unable to write a simple letter.

It’s been reported that 79% of surveyed executives cited writing as one of the most neglected skills in the business world, yet one of the most important to productivity. A  survey of 402 companies reported by the Associated Press noted that executives identified writing as the most valued skill but said 80% of their employees at all levels need to improve. Number of workers needing improvement in writing skills was up 20% from results of same survey, in earlier year.

Results of a study by a placement agency were almost identical: 80% of 443 employers surveyed said their workers needed training in writing skills… A report by the U.S. Labor Department noted that most future jobs will require writing skills…  According to a survey of 461 business leaders reveals that while the three R’s (i.e., reading, writing, and arithmetic) are still fundamental to every employee’s ability to do the job, employers view ‘soft’ skills as even more important to work readiness.

The study also found that younger workers frequently lack basic skills including: Professionalism-work ethic; oral and written communication; teamwork and collaboration skills; critical thinking or problem-solving skills…

International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) is a twenty-country comparative study of adult literacy in the workplace and it highlighted the lack of basic skills in employed people in the U.S. and other highly developed countries. Results from the IALS study show that more than 40% of American adults lack enough of the basic literacy skills to perform most jobs adequately. For employers, this means that many employees at every level in their organizations need help to improve their basic skills in order to do their jobs well…

IALS defines ‘literacy’ as a particular capacity and mode of behavior; ability to understand and employ printed information in daily activities, at home, at work and in the community– in order to develop one’s knowledge and potential, and achieve one’s goals… IALS identified three distinct literacy types:

  • Prose literacy– knowledge and skills needed to understand and use information from texts, including; editorials, news stories, books…
  • Document literacy-– knowledge and skills needed to locate and use information contained in various formats, including; job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables, and graphs…
  • Quantitative Literacy ability to work with numbers and conduct quantitative operations, such as; balancing a checkbook, calculating a meal tip, completing an order form, determining interest on a loan…

In the article The New Literacy by David Warlick writes: Reading, writing, arithmetic no longer guarantee students a place in the workforce. A different skill set is in high demand… We live in a time when the very nature of information is changing; in what it looks like, what we use to view it, where and how we find it, what we can do with it, and how we communicate it. If this information is changing, then our sense of what it means to be literate must also change…

Being literate in our digital world mirrors our traditional sense of literacy. We’ll continue to access (read), process (arithmetic), and communicate information (write). But, like it or not, this information age requires skills that force 3 R’s (reading, writing, arithmetic) to evolve into the 4 E’s (expose, employ, express, and ethics on the Internet)… Traditional literacy taught us to take for granted the authority of the information we used.

With contemporary literacy, students must show evidence of that authority. Students should be able to: Find information within that vast global digital library that’s relevant to what they are researching; understand and explain what they find regardless of its format (e.g., text, images, audio, animation, video); evaluate information to determine its value; organize that information into electronic folders or other personal e-libraries… Numbers, numbers, numbers… Until about a decade ago, printed text was almost exclusively intended for reading and numbers were used for measurement and computation.

Today, thanks to digitization, almost all information can be described with numbers. They are the backdrop to music, pictures, and words on computers, handhelds, and cell phones. How we process these digitized numbers has also changed, as well as our notion of mathematics. The subject has become more important, and students can do much more of it using computers and the Internet. Students need to understand how to employ numbers to answer essential questions, solve real problems, and accomplish important goals.

They must be able to compute large sets of visible numbers using computer spreadsheets and data-processing tools… students must acquire the skills to effectively and creatively develop a message that will capture their audience’s attention. This involves being able to write convincingly and effective, and to incorporate images, sound, animation, and video. These are basics for contemporary literacy…

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U.S. literacy in crisis? According to an influential study; literacy and numeracy skills of young people in U.S. are among lowest in developed world. Young people in the U.S. lag behind most of the Western world in their mastering of basic skills of literacy and  numeracy… These findings may have major implications for the U.S.’s ability to compete in the global economy in future years – threatening it with a major skills shortage…

A federal study finds that an estimated 32 million adults in the U.S.– about one in seven (i.e., 1 in 7)– are saddled with such low literacy skills that it would be tough for them to read anything more challenging than a child’s picture book, or understand medication’s side effects listed on a pill bottle…  According to Sheida White; they really cannot read… paragraphs or sentences that are connected.

According to Helen Osborne; to understand health information, people need a working knowledge of numbers– not just words… they need to read nutrition labels, correctly calculate medication dosages… According to David Harvey; adult literacy is a core social issue and low literacy levels are correlated with higher rates of crime, social problems, navigating the healthcare system, and we know that some of the folks who signed sub-prime mortgages didn’t understand what they were signing…

Illiteracy costs U. S. businesses billions of dollars annually, losing valuable work time providing basic skills training including English-as-a-second-language to workers. Workers who cannot read and interpret basic signs and instructions compromise safety, slow production and cause errors that affect profits, customer satisfaction, and compliance with laws and regulatory requirements. Illiteracy also affects the ability of workers to communicate with each other and function as teams…

As workplaces become more complex and technology-based, illiteracy creates a gap between the workforce and the needs of businesses. Illiteracy, which limits the pool of qualified workers from which businesses can choose, is also connected to crime, health issues and high unemployment. Business compete in a global economy that requires increasingly higher levels of education and training. Illiteracy among U.S.  workers and society in general, threatens the ability of businesses to compete on a global level. Illiteracy puts businesses at a disadvantage in competing globally with better-educated workers…

illiteracy and innumeracy in the U.S. is a crisis and policy makers must rethink the national priorities: Without question; healthcare reform, immigration reform… are important. But, literacy and numeracy are the very foundation of the U.S. as a democracy and they must take priority over all else…