VIEWPOINT: Lack of basic skills hurts competitiveness

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

There is a businesseducation slant to the age-old argument. The business community contends that the state’s colleges and universities are not producing enough graduates to meet their needs. Highereducation advocates,
on the other hand, say the qualified graduates are in place, but a lack of jobs within Indiana sends them packing to other states.

We’ll leave that argument for another day. There is another major workplacepreparedness issue, however, that is rightfully drawing serious attention. It does not involve the baccalaureate and higher degree levels, but rather the basic skills of employees who are consistently being asked to perform at higher levels.

It is an issue far from unique to Indiana. Like many topics, though, Indiana’s focus on manufacturing only adds to the challenge. For a long time, it was possible to get by or even excel with a lower level of basic skills. But the bar has been raised. Today’s and tomorrow’s manufacturing jobs require enhanced basic skills. The knowledge-based jobs that are growing in importance necessitate a work force that
leads the nation and the world.

The work ethic Indiana is known for will go only so far. Hard work can’t overcome these numbers: Using the best available information, researchers estimate that 960,000 to 1.23 million employed Hoosiers lack the basic skills for successful employment in a knowledge-based economy. That’s one of every three Indiana workers.

In contrast, current public resources-delivered through a variety of state agency programs-serve an estimated 20,000 to 23,000 workers each year. That’s 1 million in need and fewer than 25,000 receiving assistance. That’s bad news for any state’s business efforts.

Our neighbor to the south faced a similar challenge. Officials there have been actively working on a solution the past five years.

The 1997 Kentucky Adult Literacy Survey found that 40 percent of the state’s 2.4 million working-age adults were functioning at the two lowest literacy levels. In 2000, only 5 percent of those nearly 1 million Kentuckians were participating in adult-education programs. The Adult Education Reform Act of 2000, creating a partnership between Kentucky Adult Education and the Council on Postsecondary Education, has helped change that. The number of workers participating in adulteducation programs has increased from 8,000 in 2000 to more than 51,000 in 2004.

Can Indiana achieve similar, or even
better, results? Certainly. A key element is active employer participation. A new Indiana Chamber Foundation study that used a national research and consulting firm, in addition to a broad-based Indiana advisory committee, is titled, “A Demand-Side Strategy to Meet Indiana’s Workforce Basic Skills Challenge.”

Current efforts have been supply-driven. Programs through the departments of Education, Commerce and Work-force Development have been made available. A lack of overall resources, and little incentive for employees to participate, account for the meager totals of annual assistance. The Chamber study found that only 20 percent of adults testing at the lowest two literacy levels saw an immediate need for help in remediation of their low skills.

Workplace literacy goes beyond reading, writing and mathematics. It includes communications skills, problem-solving abilities, the capacity to work effectively in teams, and the willingness to accept change and embrace personal improvement to meet evolving demands.

Employers have a vested interest and must take an active role in improvement efforts. Public- and private-sector cooperation can develop a system that makes practical and economic sense. Too much is at stake for anything less.

Brinegar is president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

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