Coming US Challenge: A Less Literate Workforce

Amanda Paulson, Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 6, 2007

US workers may be significantly less literate in 2030 than they are today.

The reason: Most baby boomers will be retiring and a large wave of less-educated immigrants will be moving into the workforce. This downward shift in reading and math skills suggests a huge challenge for educators and policymakers in the future, according to a new report from the Educational Testing Service (ETS).

If they can’t reverse the trend, then it could spell trouble for a large swath of the labor force, widen an already large skill gap, and shrink the middle class.

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The decline in literacy is one of the more startling projections in a report that examines what it calls a “perfect storm” of converging factors and how those trends are likely to play out if left unchecked.

The three factors identified are: a shifting labor market increasingly rewarding education and skills, a changing demographic that include a rapid-growing Hispanic population, and a yawning achievement gap, particularly along racial and socioeconomic lines, when it comes to reading and math.

The individual trends have been identified before, but this study makes an effort to examine their combined effects, and to project a disturbing future, including a sharply declining middle class in addition to the lost ground in literacy.

“We have the possibility of transforming the American dream into the American tragedy,” says Irwin Kirsch, a senior research director at ETS and the lead author of the study.

Ringing the alarm

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One factor that’s been gaining increasing attention lately is the changing economic rewards in an economy in which demand for manufacturing and lower skilled labor is declining. It’s become tougher for workers without higher education—or higher cognitive skills—to get the sort of job that can support a family.

But exacerbating the changes such an economic shift is causing are demographic factors, researchers say. Baby boomers are retiring and being replaced by less-skilled workers. A combination of immigration and population growth means that the share of the population that is Hispanic is expected to grow from 14 percent in 2005 to more than 20 percent by 2030. More than half of the immigrant Hispanics lack a high school diploma.

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Turning to education

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Later this month, the US Chamber of Commerce—along with the liberal Center for American Progress and the conservative American Enterprise Institute—plans to release a report card grading states on their K-12 education in nine categories, together with an action agenda, says Arthur Rothkopf, a senior vice president at the Chamber of Commerce.

Solidarity with the Center for American Progress is unusual for his agency, he notes, “but we have to get the message out.”

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You can read the Educational Testing Service’s press release here.

You can download the Report America’s Perfect Storm: Three Forces Changing Our Nation’s Future and its executive summary as PDF files here.

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