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The Business Case for Adult Education

Written by on August 16, 2018

The Business Case for Adult Education

Across the United States, millions of men and women with limited reading, math, or digital problem-solving skills are holding down jobs across the service sector. Employed in retail shops and restaurants, hotels and hospitals, utility companies and service centers, these workers not only help fuel the country’s economy — they keep daily life in San Antonio and Bexar County humming smoothly along.

Their jobs require these workers to read vital directions, follow safety protocols, calculate prices, supervise colleagues, and oversee budgets. All these tasks are made dramatically more challenging for workers who don’t have strong literacy or numeracy skills. Many create work-arounds to compensate for their lack of skills, but others struggle in silence. Their skill gaps carry heavy consequences for themselves, their co-workers, their employers, and our society.  Some adults enrolled in Adult Education are seeking their high school diploma or equivalent, but many American adults who have earned a high school diploma still struggle with basic skills. The problem is large and growing, (Bergson-Shilock, 2016).

America Has a Skills Gap

In a recent survey, 92% of business leaders thought that U.S. workers were lacking the necessary skills.  By 2018, 63% of all U.S. jobs will require education beyond high school. Yet, nearly half of the U.S. workforce—about 88 million of 188 million adults aged 18 to 64—has only a high school education or less, and/or low English proficiency, (National Skills Coalition, 2017).  Both urban and rural areas need trained employees. As of 2016, there were 476 counties in the US in which 20 percent or more of the working age population lacked a high school diploma or equivalent. Eighty percent are in non-metro areas. More than half of all jobs (54%) in the U.S. today are middle-skill jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but not a four-year degree. Yet only 44% of workers are trained to the middle-skill level.  Educating motivated students with the skills that companies need can provide qualified candidates for hard to fill positions, (Author & Price, 2013).

We can’t wait for today’s K-12 Students to fill that gap

In 2017, 36 million adults in the U.S. have limited English or reading skills and more than 60 million can’t perform simple math.  We cannot depend on a robust economy to solve this problem. A stronger economy will bring people back into the workforce, but it won’t train them. According to Alan Daley’s “Overcoming the Skills Shortage,” “More than 75 percent of manufacturers report moderate to severe skill shortages and up to 11 percent revenue losses from increased production cost and sales losses due to those shortages. Service industries are hardest hit. Thirty-three percent of all small businesses say they cannot identify candidates qualified for job openings. And 43 percent of small business owners say unfilled jobs are impeding their growth or expansion.”  With Adult Education we can train these students to fill the jobs industry needs today.

Adult Education is Good for Business

By 2020, the American Action Forum projects that the U.S. will be short an estimated 7.5 million private sector workers across all skill levels. Companies miss growth opportunities, product development suffers, and profits stagnate without a skilled national workforce. America needs an “all hands-on deck” approach to bring every available worker to the labor pool. Adult Education brings businesses options by preparing existing workers with competing life and family responsibilities with the skills that companies need through flexible classrooms and curriculum, (Morgan, Waite, & Diecuch, 2017). Adult Education is a smart investment. We need all available workers ready to help our country compete. Unfortunately, since 2001, funding for Adult Education, when adjusted for inflation, has fallen by 25.3%. Proposed additional cuts to education funding in 2018 will have a substantial impact on adult education.  1.5 million students are enrolled in Adult Education programs, down 44% percent due to funding cuts, (Miller, Greenberg, Hendrick, & Nanda, 2017). Adults with a high school degree were more likely to work full time and average 20% higher earnings ($30,000) well above the poverty line for a family of four. Educating adults creates stronger communities. Higher education levels are correlated with lower rates of chronic diseases like diabetes and asthma, and a mother’s education level is the highest determinate of a child’s academic success. Better-educated parents raise better- educated, more successful, children, who are less likely to end up in poverty or prison. Inmate participation in adult education reduces recidivism.

San Antonio is the seventh largest city in the United States, it ranks 73rd in national measures of literacy according to U.S. Census data and a report from Central Connecticut State University. Roughly one in four San Antonio adults is functionally illiterate, defined as reading at or below the fifth-grade level, (Central Connecticut State University, 2016).



Author, D. H., & Price, B. M. (2013). The Changing Task Composition of the US Labor Market: An Update of Autor, Levy, and Murnane. MIT Mimeography.

Bergson-Shilock, A. (2016). Foundational skills in the service sector. Boston, MA: National Skills Coalition.

Central Connecticut State University. (2016). 13th annual survey of America’s Most Literate Cities. New Brittain: Center for Public Policy & Social Research at CCSU.

Miller, C. D., Greenberg, D., Hendrick, R. C., & Nanda, A. (2017). Educational attainment: Limited implications for adult literacy learners. Journal of Research and Practice for Adult Literacy, Secondary, and Basic Education, 6(2).

Morgan, K., Waite, D., & Diecuch, M. (2017). The case for investment in adult education. Syracuse, NY: Proliteracy.

National Skills Coalition. (2017). Invest in America’s Workforce: We Can’t Compete If We Cut. Washington DC: National Skills Coalition.

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