NEW YORK — A telephone company attempting to recruit workers finds 84% of applicants fail the entry-level test. A congressional study shows most high school juniors cannot write a simple letter seeking a summer job.
A steelworker misorders $1 million in parts because he cannot read well. An insurance clerk who doesn't understand decimals pays a claimant $2,200 instead of $22.
Illiteracy caused by poor education has become an economic time bomb, threatening both the quality of the American work force and the nation's ability to compete on world markets, government policy-makers say.
The Department of Education estimates that more than 27 million Americans older than 17 cannot read or write well enough to perform basic requirements of everyday life. An additional 45 million are considered barely competent in basic skills.
That means more than 72 million--one out of every three adults--may lack the reading and writing skills they need to find work. And the number is growing annually by more than 2 million, federal officials say.
These statistics coincide with a surge in demand for workers who not only can read and write but use computers, understand technological concepts and think independently in an economy that is shifting to services and information and away from manufacturing.
Moreover, this erosion of worker literacy comes at a time when America's competitors in Asia and Europe are forging ahead with educated work forces that may come to dominate the high-technology business of the 21st Century.
"We need to determine what to do with the substantial fraction of our population that's ill-equipped to compete in a global economy," said Indiana University professor Lawrence Mikulecky.
A study commissioned by the Department of Labor titled "Workforce 2000," published last June, estimated that between now and the end of the century, for the first time in U.S. history, a majority of all new jobs will require post-secondary education.
This prospect presents a great risk to minority workers, who historically have lacked the schooling and skills needed to exploit job opportunities, said the study conducted by the Hudson Institute, a private research organization.
If that pattern persists, the study said, "by the year 2000, the problems of minority unemployment, crime and dependency will be worse than they are today. Without substantial adjustments, blacks and Hispanics will have a smaller fraction of the jobs of the year 2000 than they have today, while their share of those seeking work will have risen."
The problem is compounded by a declining number of people entering the labor pool, a consequence of the sharp drop-off in birth rates that followed the postwar baby boom.
Some personnel executives say the literacy crisis already has hurt them. New York Telephone Co. discovered last year that 84% of its New York City applicants flunked the company's entry-level exam, which included basic questions on vocabulary and numerical relationships.
The Business Council for Effective Literacy, a corporate-sponsored group, has documented instances in which employees misordered millions of dollars in parts, overpaid bills and endangered workplace safety. In one case, a feedlot operator who misread a label killed a pen full of cattle by giving them poison instead of grain.
Foreign companies building factories in the United States also have been rudely awakened. At Toyota Motor Corp.'s U.S. manufacturing operations, for example, personnel managers now test the educational level of all prospective employees.
"They're not just assuming that because someone comes in with a high school diploma, he's going to be prepared," said Paul Jurmo, program associate at the Business Council for Effective Literacy.
Test Scores Lower
Definitions of literacy vary greatly, but some tests have served as important guides. In 1985, for example, the Department of Education asked 3,400 people aged 20 and older to answer at least 20 of 26 simple questions correctly. Nearly 13% failed.
Other measurements are considered equally discouraging. A study mandated by Congress in 1984 found that fewer than 400 of 2,000 11th graders could adequately write a note applying for a summer job at a swimming pool.
College Board test scores have fallen about 8% over the past 20 years, while test performance abroad has risen. In an international calculus and algebra test done a few years ago, the best U.S. 12th graders came in last among students from the most developed countries. Japanese finished first.
Estimates on the cost of workplace illiteracy also vary but are believed to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. The Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy at Penn State University has said the cost is at least $225 billion per year, just in terms of lost productivity, welfare and related crime and prison expenses.