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Remaining Optimistic About Adults

New Orleans has a literacy problem. More than a quarter of the working-age population in the New Orleans metro are low-skilled and likely low-literate.  There is a mismatch between the educational levels of our workforce and the 14 years of education required for available positions.

As important as our current school reforms are to the future of the city, the impact of its graduates won’t be felt for decades. Two-thirds of New Orleans’ 2025 labor pool is working-age adults, meaning — if we want to become a more literate and productive city — we must make significant investments in adult education.

These are some of the findings from the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center’s latest report, “Strengthening Our Workforce from Within: Adult Education’s Role in Furthering Economic Growth in Greater New Orleans." The report flatly states, “If we fail to build the skills of native low-skilled workers, we will continue to have a surplus of adults with low skills, which contributes to high unemployment, high incarceration rates, lost productivity, and cash-strapped governments.” Garnering support for adult education may not be as romantic as it was for school reform, but it’s certainly as important.

How do we make a more literate society, and where should investments in adult education come from? We should not simply try to gentrify our workforce with non-New Orleanians. Likewise, low skilled workers aren’t leaving the city, and in spite of our efforts, there are not enough jails for those who turn to crime. In addition, we’re not going to non-profit our way out of poverty, unemployment and illiteracy. Certainly, GED programs and community colleges will continue to play a significant role, but we cannot improve illiteracy without a change in perspective from our business community.

Businesses small and large must see themselves as providers of adult education. Reform in the business sector must include soft skill training, literacy development and post-secondary benefits. Also, employers must find ways to give the formerly incarcerated opportunities. Schools can’t be the only institutions charged to develop literacy.

Literacy is exercised through the practice of work. We expand our skills that are developed in schools, GED programs and colleges by working in our jobs, serving others and performing. If people don’t work, literacy training becomes a lifeless esoteric exercise. Why learn French in school if it is not spoken outside of it?  While I certainly appreciate living a life of the mind, most people learn so they can live. Life is hard without a job.

It’s tough to convince stakeholders to invest in adult education because we are less optimistic in the capacity of adults. We’ve internalized the adage that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. Moreover, we don’t like the aesthetics of illiteracy. Employers don’t want the accents, tattoos and other markers of what we perceive to be to be risky hires.

Many adults may not be camera ready, but they have the capacity to learn. People who are low-literate should be seen as less of risk and more as potential customers. We all profit when people read and compute at high level. Equally, if employers don’t invest in building the capacity of low skilled workers, we all may be looking for jobs.

Andre Perry, Ph.D. (twitter: @andreperrynola) is Associate Director for Educational Initiatives for Loyola University New Orleans and author of   The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City  .