When Did Illiteracy Become a Crime?

Lacking an education isn’t a crime, and it surely shouldn’t result in a prison sentence. Yet, research finds that 70 percent of the U.S. prison population can’t read. They are among the 32 million people (or 14 percent of the U.S. population) that read below a basic level.

This week is American Education Week, and Goodwill® understands the important connection between employment and education. People who lack education face a grim future and bleak job prospects. Meanwhile, employers seek workers that have the skills to perform the technical jobs of today and the aptitude to learn the increasingly technical jobs of tomorrow. That’s why in 2014, local Goodwill agencies throughout North America helped more than 35,000 people who have low literacy skills and more than 125,000 people who lack a high school diploma or a GED to overcome this serious employment challenge.

In the past, the workforce and education systems have been parallel, yet disconnected – the former for helping people to find work quickly when they need a job fast, and the latter for helping a worker to learn skills needed for career advancement. That is until last year, when Congress voted overwhelmingly to enact the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). The new law includes a number of innovations including those that that aim to integrate programs such as training and “Adult Basic Education” programs that help people who lack educational attainment.

Let’s consider a use case. Larry seeks help from the workforce system in finding a job. There is growing demand for IT professionals in his community, and there are training opportunities available. However, Larry lacks a GED and he reads at a seventh-grade level. Now, Larry can enroll for job training services and develop a plan that will put him on the pathway toward achieving his ultimate goal of getting a job in a growing occupation that pays a family-sustaining wage. Improving his educational attainment and earning a high school diploma or GED will be one of the first milestones along his path toward his ultimate goal. After which he might pass other milestones such as earning recognizable credentials and gaining on-the-job employment experience, and so on. Although these milestones are still important for stakeholders to measure performance, they are now a means to an end.

In passing WIOA, Congress took an important step toward integrating training, education and other programs that support job seekers and workers. This fall, state and local decision makers are working to develop their implementation plans. You can help them get it right by looking for and acting upon opportunities to provide input through field hearings, town hall meetings, focus groups, surveys, social media and other techniques.