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Illiteracy is Bad for Business

October 26, 2008

Can you think of any successful business that doesn’t rely on people who can read?

You would be hard pressed to find even one.

Sure, some entry level jobs don’t require literacy skills (ditch digging, painting houses, pulling used up chickens out of their cages, and creeling carpets to name a few), but sooner or later, readers fuel the economy of any business.  It takes readers to run businesses.  It takes readers to buy what you’re selling.

So here’s the problem:  Almost half of American adults can’t read English above an 8th grade level.  And between increased immigration from non-English speaking countries and an education system that is graduating the first generation of young adults less educated than their parents, that number is growing every year. *

This situation is BAD FOR BUSINESS.  In fact, from a macro-economic perspective, arguably no crisis is worse for American business than our growing illiteracy problem–including a flaky, greedy Wall Street or the always ominus healthcare.

Every person added to the rolls of the under-educated means one less customer and, worse, it means one more middle-skill job (jobs that require at least some post-high school education) that can’t be filled and must be outsourced to more literate countries.  And plenty of countries are more literate than America–we rank 11th.  (Go ahead–click the graph.)

These are not happy trends.

For some, reducing the problem to cliches, as some do, may salve the conscience.  But hoping the situation will actually improve because of whatever truth the attitudes may contain is naive at best or, more often, destructive.

  • They have made the choice on their own and they must suffer the consequences.
  • If we just had an English-only policy in America, it would fix the problem.
  • If parents paid more attention to their children, we wouldn’t be in this mess.
  • Cool, I can hire non-English speakers to do my dirty jobs for minimum wage or lower.
  • Government and schools better get on the ball and start educating our children!
  • Well, I only hire high school graduates or higher.  We ARE helping.

The problem of illiteracy in America is too complex for bumper-sticker notions.  Whining and lamenting are for sissies.

Reality is:  If Business begins to realize that illiteracy is hurting the bottom line, then Business will start investing in making America more literate.  Motivated Business won’t wait on schools or parents or government or immigration law to address the need. (Many businesses already do engage in literacy improvement of course, but we are no where near a tipping point.)  

So, Business People, what are you doing about it?  

What is your business doing to promote literacy? And if you’re not doing anything, why not?

Can you really afford to do nothing?


*Statistics from Reach Higher, AMERICA: Overcoming Crisis in the U.S. Workforce (Report of the National Commission on Adult Literacy, June 2008), pp. 2, 4, 6)
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