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Booming Industry : Workers Get New Look at Three R's

February 13, 1987|LARRY GREEN and WENDY LEOPOLD | Times Staff Writers

CHICAGO — Ereatha Clayborn, 35, a Blue Cross service representative, a Bible instructor at her church and a former high school biology teacher, just spent a week studying how to write and speak in her native tongue--English.

Glenda Saffold, 41, a cutter-grinder at a Ford Motor Co. plant in Rawsonville, Mich., recently gave up her 30-minute lunch breaks to relearn high school mathematics--something she last studied a quarter of a century ago.

USX Corp. accountant Edward C. Ecker, 23, took a weeklong class in Pittsburgh to learn how to write better reports. He attended, at his employer's expense--less than two years after his university graduation.

Demanded by Employers

Clayborn, Saffold and Ecker belong to a growing new class of American workers who take part in remedial education classes sponsored by and paid for by their employers, classes that companies increasingly demand that their employees attend.

"Education and training within large, private-sector corporations of the United States has become a booming industry," educator Nell P. Eurich says in a study of corporate classrooms published by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

"Remedial training in the workplace is now part of the cost of doing business in this country," Xerox Chairman and Chief Executive David T. Kearns says. "It's a cost I resent, because when business has to teach basic skills, we're doing the school's product recall work for them."

'Why I'm Successful'

"Big business has to make up for what the public schools don't give them. That is precisely why I'm successful," says consultant Zacharias Rosner, founder of The Grammar Group, a Chicago-based firm whose only "product" is teaching the basics of English to corporate employees, many of whom have university degrees.

An estimated 400 of the nation's 1,000 largest corporations now provide "some kind of formal instruction they feel should have been provided in schools," says Anthony P. Carnevalli, chief economist and vice president of the Washington-based American Society for Training and Development. The Carnegie Foundation's Eurich believes the number may be even higher. She estimates that 75% of the country's big corporations "are offering basic literacy courses."

These companies spend, depending on who's estimating, between $300 million and $600 million annually to school workers in the basic three "R's" of reading, writing and arithmetic. It is a cost that either must be deducted from profits or passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices for goods and services.

"Before 1980 companies were not even willing to discuss compensatory training. They felt it was the responsibility of the public schools," says Edward E. Gordon, president of Imperial Corporate Training in Chicago.

But times have changed. Today, "American corporations are finding the need to set up schools within their companies," says Gordon, whose own firm teaches classes at the workplace of its corporate clients in everything from simple grammar and spelling to writing and foreign languages.

Corporations are also retraining and re-educating older workers who have been caught by changing requirements, who now need basics to learn advanced skills necessary in a more technologically sophisticated workplace.

"There are people who've done good work but the rules are changing," says Linda Stoker, director of technology readiness programs for Polaroid Corp. "Does it make sense to put them out on the streets? No. It makes sense to re-educate them."

Resentful at First

"At first I was offended when they asked me to go," says Clayborn, the Illinois Blue Cross service representative who took a company-sponsored English course. "After all I took and passed a test before I was promoted to this position. At first I got the impression that this was something offensive. But I think the course was excellent. I learned concepts I heard before but that didn't make sense. I learned most of this stuff once but it didn't stick with me."

Major unions, particularly the United Auto Workers, are also sponsoring classes for both active and dislocated workers.

Philip O. Mastin, a spokesman for the nonprofit United Auto Workers-General Motors Human Resource Center, explains that not all of the need to learn now can be laid to a failure of the school system.

"It's not that they never had the skill," he says. "It's often that they haven't used it . . . that they completed high school 10 or more years ago and haven't used their math or reading for years so they require remediation."

While the cost of basic education is only a fraction of the $30 billion or more spent on training by the leading companies that make up Fortune magazine's "Fortune 1,000," the cost does appear to reflect a weakness in the U.S. work force.

Skills 'Pretty Bad'

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