Building Career Ladders for the Working Poor Through Literacy Training

Bruno, L.
Jin, Y.
Norris, D
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
American Institutes for Research
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

The researchers use data from the U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*Net, and the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) to develop recommendations to inform the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA) of approaches that would address literacy barriers to the upward mobility of the working poor.

NAAL data suggests literacy proficiency is a factor in the types of jobs people do and the wages they are paid. Literacy gaps prevent the average working poor from being able to do over 75% of occupations that could provide family-sustaining wages. On the other hand, the needed increase in literacy skills in many occupations is minimal. Three necessary steps can improve the workforce: 1) One Stop Centers need a means of assessing literacy levels; 2) the working poor need to be aware that literacy is the barrier to higher wages; 3) educators need to incorporate efficient literacy training directed to the working poor.

The research provides many practical suggestions that can make a difference in the lives of the working poor:

  • Literacy learning must be relevant to the learner;
  • Limit literacy training to specific skills needed for a better paying job;
  • Teach the literacy skills concurrently with the job skills;
  • Reduce the training time;
  • Take the literacy training to the workplace.
What the experts say

This research is worth the difficult reading for the implications for practice that are summarized in the abstract. Readers who are not highly skilled in research statistics should not be dissuaded from reading the resource since it can inform practice. This research report presents data drawn from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy to identify who the working poor are and how their literacy levels compare to other groups (i.e., non-poor working and general population) as well as literacy levels of people employed in jobs that could potentially lift them out of the working poor category. The report introduces the idea of literacy gaps between identifiable job categories and an individual’s literacy levels. Key points:

  1. Many jobs appear accessible by overcoming manageable literacy gaps but
  2. Many potential workers don’t believe their literacy levels are a problem and/or that identifiable obstacles preclude them from receiving literacy instruction.

The report concludes with suggestions for how educators and One-Stop-Career Centers might use this information to better serve clients and students, but two cautions are in order. First the list of occupations in Table 5 should be tempered by a scan of the local community. A high growth occupation nationally may not be available locally. Second, due to test error one should be cautious about gap analysis of an individual’s test score (p.8, “If actual literacy levels are substituted for the averages used in Table 5, a One-Stop Career Center counselor can easily calculate the literacy gap between a client and one or more occupations.”)

Methods the resource used to collect and analyze the data for the research: See Appendix A (page A-1) provides the methodology and technical notes.