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S.C.’s low literacy rates impact employment

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Kathy Wilds

On Aug. 25, the Lancaster County Chamber of Commerce held its State of Education Breakfast, an event that some of you attended. Guest speakers included Dr. Gene Moore, Lancaster County School Superintendent, Dr. Greg Rutherford, president of York Technical College, Dr. John Catalano, dean at the University of South Carolina at Lancaster, and Robert C. Barnett, vice president of education for the S.C. Chamber of Commerce.
The event was an opportunity for the audience to learn about the state of education in Lancaster, as well as South Carolina. Within the county, there is clearly much for us to be proud of regarding the successes of the institutions, the numbers of students served and the level of collaboration. Each speaker took the opportunity to point out the impact the economy is having on budgets while also carefully lamenting the lost opportunity when the state’s elected officials chose not to receive $114 million in federal funds.
However, it was Moore’s comments, along with Barnett’s, that I thought were especially noteworthy:
Too many children are coming to school ill-prepared, yet budget cuts have eliminated pre-school programs.
Gaps are no longer in third or fifth grade, but the very first day a child starts school.
Parents are not involved with their children’s education, especially if they are working two or more jobs, or lack the resources to effectively communicate via e-mail or the Internet.
55 percent of students in Lancaster County are now on free or reduced lunches – an indicator of the impact of unemployment or underemployment.
South Carolina will not be competitive if we do not educate our adults over the age of 25.
Future workers must be learning workers.
Only 72.1 percent of high school students statewide graduate from high school and of those who do in Lancaster County, only 68 percent seek education/training at a technical college or undergraduate program. In this day and age, young people must consider additional education to compete in the modern workplace.
It was clear to me that every spectrum of education was being addressed except those programs providing literacy services – whether at the preschool level or adult level. If current statistics are correct, then of the 11,500 students enrolled in Lancaster County Schools, potentially 50 percent of the parents will not be able to assist them with homework because of their own lack of education.
Barnett was very clear in stating that “South Carolina has a reading problem” and that we do not have a ready-trained workforce because of our low literacy levels. He rightly pointed out that we are fortunate enough to have an excellent technical college system that stands ready to assist any employer with training needs. What were not addressed were the training needs of those who have not completed high school and/or who have a reading problem.
Sept. 12-19 is National Adult Education and Family Literacy Week. Nationwide, funding for adult literacy programs is under siege, affecting the more than 30 million adults nationwide who cannot read well enough to comprehend a news article written at the third-grade level; take a driver’s exam or read the label on a medicine bottle.
The situation is particularly dire for adults with low literacy skills who have been displaced by the recent recession.
In fact, unemployment among adults with the lowest literacy skills has soared to 15.5 percent nationwide, compared to the national unemployment average of 9 percent.
Those of us in the literacy field have long seen a link between employment rates and literacy skills among adults. It presents a far greater challenge for out-of-work Americans to find new jobs without the most basic literacy skills to help them become competitive in the marketplace. The Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success estimates that by 2018, only 10 percent of jobs will be open to those who fail to complete high school.
Yet only a fraction of the tens of millions of American adults who need literacy services actually receive them. Adult literacy programs typically operate on a lean $193,000 annual budget, meaning that even the smallest budget cuts created by the loss of funding will detrimentally affect adult learners and their ability to gain sustainable employment.
The same is true here for our adult education and literacy programs. The members of Carolinas Literacy Network provide the first steps for adults re-engaging their educational pursuits so that they can successfully enroll at York Technical College or USCL. Without the services provided by our member agencies, thousands of citizens in Lancaster and Chester counties will continue to remain dependent on unemployment benefits or welfare due to a lack of basic skills.
We must support adult literacy and basic education programs and recognize the tremendous impact they have on our area’s ability to thrive. You can help by making a donation of time, talent and money. Contact Carolinas Literacy Network at 285-8805, visit our website: www.carolinasliteracy.org or visit our book exchange, Second Glance/Second Chance at 105 W. Dunlap St., Lancaster.

Kathy Wilds is executive director for Carolinas Literacy Network.