October 6, 2010

Expanding Options for Low Skilled Workers

Training programs for good-paying jobs require solid literacy and math skills—a challenge for high school dropouts and immigrants with limited English. Literacy programs to boost skills are poorly coordinated with job training and inadequate to meet the need. Chicago Citywide Literacy Coalition is stepping up to coordinate services and resources to help Illinois workers get started on the path to better jobs.

Chicago Citywide Literacy CoalitionStubbornly high unemployment and fierce global competition are putting increasing pressure on Illinois workers to develop solid job skills. The best prospects are in "middle skill" jobs, from health care to construction to public safety, which make up the biggest portion of the Illinois labor market and are projected to do well in the future. Preparing for these good-paying careers requires vocational training and some postsecondary education. In many cases, potential workers must first improve their basic skills before they can learn the technical skills necessary for these good jobs. This process can take years.

The process can be lengthy because adult literacy programs are often not aligned with job training programs. Many students enroll in adult literacy programs expecting to improve skills for work. Adult literacy programs, however, are not always designed to meet the employment goals of students. "Literacy services are not plugged into larger initiatives in workforce development," says Becky Raymond of the Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC), one of the city's top community job training organizations. Vocational training and postsecondary education programs generally require students to have high school level reading and math skills. JARC's manufacturing program, for example, teaches workplace math (measurements, computer skills, etc.) and literacy focused on technical vocabulary. Students who enroll in its manufacturing program must read at or above the ninth grade level. Unfortunately, many potential workers read below the ninth grade level and cannot immediately qualify for technical training and education. "We need to align our literacy training with workforce development, so that people can get into those programs," says Raymond.

Raymond is coordinating the 48-member Chicago Citywide Literacy Coalition. For many years the Coalition was dedicated to sharing ideas and building relationships among literacy providers. Over the last two years, the Coalition has been organizing to improve adult education to meet the overwhelming demand for services from people seeking to improve job related skills. Out of discussions among providers and funders emerged a proposal to redesign the Coalition and focus on coordinating literacy services with employment and job training programs, improving the quality of literacy programs for job-seeking students, and advocating for resources to support coordination efforts and high quality programs. The Fry Foundation is providing funding to help the Coalition move in this new direction.

The Coalition is off to a strong start. Chicago has been selected to participate in the Great Cities Summit Initiative, a joint effort of the U.S. Department of Education and the National Literacy Institute that aims to improve adult education nationwide by sharing lessons among five leading cities. The Chicago team includes the Coalition, the Chicago Workforce Investment Council, City Colleges of Chicago, and the Illinois Community College Board. Its priorities are better coordination of services, improved instruction, and effective communication on the importance of adult literacy and basic skills for today's job market.

The future of Chicago's regional economy depends on having an adequately trained workforce to fill job openings projected to result from economic growth and the retirement of the Baby Boom generation. The Coalition will play a key role in workforce preparation. Many of its members are working hard to develop and improve programs for students looking to improve their education and employment prospects. The Coalition will work in partnership with the Chicago Workforce Investment Council to expand the number of adult literacy programs available and promote best teaching practices among adult literacy educators. It is working with the Illinois Community College Board to improve connections between adult literacy programs and postsecondary education. And, the Coalition is helping the Illinois Department of Human Services increase access to adult literacy services for low-income job seekers, public housing residents, and welfare recipients.

The efforts of the Chicago Citywide Literacy Coalition are critical to ensuring that the workforce development system is equipped to work with all residents, including those who need to improve their education and vocational skills. Making the system work better promises to expand job opportunities for all residents and contribute to Chicago's long-term economic health