Defining Work Readiness


Adult literacy has been at the heart of World Education’s work since it was established in 1951 in India and founded the Literacy House upon the urging of Mohandas Gandhi. Sixty-four years later, while gains have been made in many parts of the world, the need for literacy education remains great:  there are nearly 800 million adults and out-of-school youth in the world with limited or no literacy and numeracy.  In the U.S., adults’ basic skills are falling behind those of other developed nations.  For the first time, the skills of young adults are lower than those of their parents’ generation.  At the same time, people need even more different types of literacies to move ahead in their lives than in 1951. World Education’s approach to literacy education and how we define it has evolved and expanded commensurate with the skills adults need to navigate systems, pursue opportunities, and address problems successfully in their personal lives, work, and communities.

To commemorate the Adult Education and Family Literacy Week, in this series of blog posts World Education/ U.S. staff share their views on what literacy means to us today and how we are helping to advance adult education in multiple ways.  Our list is not comprehensive: there are not enough days in a week to feature all the types of literacy youth and adults need in today’s world!  Please join the dialogue.

Workplace Literacy

Adult learners often seek to improve their basic skills because they want better jobs. And as adult educators, we want to provide them with the skills they need to get those jobs. But what if there are simply not enough good jobs to go around? Do we proceed, happy that at least a few will procure that “better job”? Or do we help our learners gain the skills they need to turn bad jobs into better jobs?

The fact is: there are a lot of really bad jobs out there, and the bad jobs are growing the fastest.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 30 occupations adding the most jobs from 2012 to 2022 will add more than 15 million (15,628,000) jobs. (See chart below.) Yet only eight of these occupations will pay a living wage, which the MIT Living Wage Calculator puts at $20.17 per hour (or $41,593 annually) for an adult raising one child.

What about the other 22 jobs? They pay less than a living wage, some of them just barely above what the U.S. considers a poverty wage. Workers in four out of the top five of the fastest growing occupations (personal care aides, retail salespersons, home health aides, and food preparation workers) can expect to make just a few thousand more (about $20,000 per year) than a poverty wage.

As adult educators, how do we let these facts inform our teaching and our understanding of “work readiness”?

At a recent conference where I was sharing these facts in a workshop, one teacher said, “I don’t want my students to see those statistics!” Right. Think how discouraging it would be to find out that all this work you are doing to get your GED or to get into college is not necessarily going to yield a decent job!

But if we pretend that this is not the reality, then we are doing our students a disservice.

If it is true that millions of the new jobs that will be added to the economy over the next 7 years will pay less than a living wage and will offer little to no advancement opportunities, then we must re-think the idea of “work readiness.” Does it mean gaining the skills you need to take your place in a low-paying, dead-end job? Hopefully not. The definition of “work readiness” should be expanded to include equipping learners with the knowledge and background they need to see themselves as advocates for themselves and others. In the classroom, our job is not just to shape students to meet the needs of future employers. Of course we want them to have the basic skills and the technical skills they need to find decent work. But we also want them to be able to shape the kind of work that is available as well as the terms of their employment, including compensation and benefits.

Adult student contributors to The Good Jobs issue of The Change Agent wrote thoughtfully about their hopes and ambitions for work. They want jobs that allow them to support their families, that provide dignity as well as a paycheck, and that don’t leave them thoroughly exhausted and stressed. Mariama Diallo in New York City doesn’t want to be “paid today but broke tomorrow.” Maria Hernandez in Fayetteville, Arkansas, wants to be treated like a “human, not a machine.” Carwasheros, grocery store workers, and hotel and restaurant workers all over the country tell stories about fighting for their right to organize, recuperating lost wages, and winning dignity and respect on the job. They are using the support of labor unions, community organizations, and workers’ centers. Students see that the reality is more complicated than just acquiring basic skills and credentials. They also need to know how to advocate for themselves and others so that they can leave our classrooms with the skills they need to join with others to affect the job market, not just be delivered into it.

Occupations with most job growth chart


Published by

Cynthia Peters

Cynthia Peters

Cynthia is the editor of The Change Agent, a social justice magazine for adult learners that teaches basic skills in the context of issues that are relevant to adults. Her expertise includes writing, editing, developing content and lesson plans, and providing professional development (both in person and via webinar) on a wide range of topics. She is a long­time community activist, currently focused on housing and youth justice work via City Life/Vida Urbana and The City School, respectively.