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Hahn Announces Worker-Literacy Program

August 07, 2003|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

Roy Bivian had a sixth-grade education when he emigrated from Mexico to the United States about 22 years ago. He never learned much English, certainly not enough to read the language, but he was able to make a living at a Los Angeles paint factory.

Then, his employers reached a disturbing conclusion: workers like Bivian who could not read English were costing the company thousands of dollars by mixing the wrong combinations, confusing white paint designed for desert highways in Arizona with mixtures more suitable for mountain roads in Idaho.

The owners of the Pervo Paint Co. figured they could move the company out of L.A. in search of better-educated workers or close the business entirely. Instead, they decided to teach the workers to read enough English to do their jobs well.

Three years later, a beaming Bivian sat beside Mayor James K. Hahn on Wednesday as the mayor pointed to him and Pervo Paint as a shining example of a literacy program he wants to see replicated across the city.

Los Angeles has the highest percentage of undereducated adults in the nation, many of them immigrants with limited schooling in their native countries, city officials said. Twenty-five percent of adults in Los Angeles have not obtained a high school diploma; 10% have a sixth-grade education or less, according to Hahn. The problem leads many to worry that businesses will be driven away in search of better-educated workers.

To prevent that, Hahn announced a plan to improve literacy skills among the city's adults. The mayor's office plans to launch a campaign to better coordinate state, federal and nonprofit literacy programs and to convince businesses and workers that it is in their economic interest to take advantage of them.

Over the next nine months, the United Way of Los Angeles will research and write a report on the status of adult literacy in Los Angeles. The $200,000 report, paid for by the city, will identify gaps in literacy by neighborhood, race, gender, age and primary language, so officials and educators can figure out where to target programs.

Hahn said the city will also be mounting a public relations campaign to convince people who need help to seek it and businesses to help facilitate it.

That's where workers such as Bivian and company owners like Pervo Paint President Brad De Ruiter come in.

De Ruiter, whose family founded Pervo Paints in 1929, said managers faced a difficult choice a few years back. As formulas for paint became increasingly complex, workers began to make mistakes because they couldn't read the instructions.

"We had to decide," DeRuiter said. "Do we want to uproot and move

A union official suggested English-literacy classes. West Los Angeles Community College sent teachers to the factory, and workers were required to take the classes in order to earn a 2% salary increase. After workers took the classes, DeRuiter said, fewer bad batches of paint were sent, profits were up, and employees were happier.

"Before, I could read nothing in English," said Bivian, who has lived in Southern California for the last 22 years. Now, he said, he can read, write and speak better. He can even help his 6-year-old daughter with her homework, he said.

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