To be illiterate in our society is more than an inconvenience, or an obstacle to making a living. It is also a badge of shame.
That’s why we should all be concerned about the results of a January study that told us almost a million Indiana workers-one-third of the work force-failed to meet the minimum literacy standards for knowledge-based jobs.
Many of us in the fields of research and policymaking have responded to this disturbing finding the same way we would any bad news-with anger and denial.
The good news is, work-force literacy and the more common definition of the term are not the same.
The Indiana Chamber of Commerce’s study of the Indiana work force did not conclude that one-third of those employed in our state can’t read and write. What it does say is that one of every three working adults doesn’t have sufficient communications, critical thinking and analytical skills to be a viable candidate for the highpaying, knowledge-based jobs our leaders hope to create.
That sure seems like a big number, especially when you consider that only about 25,000 workers are enrolled in formal training programs to upgrade their skills at any given time. Yet before we interpret this seemingly enormous gap between what workers need and what we’re providing, let’s try to get a handle on what all this might mean.
First, there is absolutely no denying that the match between Indiana’s traditionally production-oriented economy and the work-force needs of the knowledge-based economy is a poor one.
Regions outside Indianapolis have thrived as centrally located, reasonably low-cost producers and transporters of physical goods. The proportion of those who work in production occupations remains higher in Indiana than in any other state, while the white collar proportion is just the opposite.
And there is also no question it has been the knowledge-based side of the economy that has been creating the most jobs nationally, eclipsing goods-oriented industries as the driver of overall wealth creation.
So analyzing how our labor force shapes up to supply the needs of the faster-growing, higher-earning sectors of the economy is exactly what we should be doing.
Yet it must also be said that if we were to measure our work force with a slightly different literacy yardstick, the results might be quite different.
Many of the same workers who cannot think abstractly or express themselves in writing well enough to be considered minimally literate for a knowledge-based job can use, adjust and repair complex equipment white-collar workers can’t even recognize.
Their handwriting may be illegible, but in their own workplace settings, their critical thinking and analytical skills may be more than adequate for the task.
It is also true that there will never be an economy where everyone has a high-paying job. There is plenty of demand for workers whose skills don’t measure up to the requirements of the white-collar workplace, and to deem a situation where such jobs still exist in great numbers a failure is unrealistic.
What the state chamber’s study does ram home, however, is the extent of the challenge our state faces in plugging itself into the knowledge-based, services-producing side of the economy that is pulling the national economic wagon today.
The harsh truth is that when we try to create, nurture and recruit companies who sell expertise and knowledge, instead of physical goods, our work-force capabilities are a detriment, instead of an asset.
We’re not dumb, and we’re certainly not illiterate. But we need to face the fact that the careers with the most promise today require a very different set of skills and abilities than those our parents may have needed. And the sooner we wake up to this new reality, the better.
Barkey is an economist and director of economic and policy study at the College of Business, Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.