Adult Literacy's Role in the Skills Gap
Posted by Jennifer Vecchiarelli on November 15, 2017 in categoryFacts & ResearchcategoryAdvocacy

What is the skills gap?

There is a gap between what employers want or need their employees to be able to do, and the skills employees possess. Good, high-paying jobs are unfilled while American workers lack the skills to fill them. This keeps many workers in the dark and unable to enter or remain in the middle class. Their lack of advanced skills means they are constantly faced with low wages and the incapacity to accomplish financial stability.

The skills gap is somewhat of a controversial topic. A number of public officials have blamed unemployment rates on skills shortages. Some educators find that many workers are either overeducated for these jobs or undereducated in the areas that fall into the skills gap. And many employers claim that it is difficult to hire employees without skills that adapt to new, evolving technologies. 

The Middle Ground

The term “skills gap” often refers to the lack of “middle skills.” Middle skills are the skills that require some specialized training or certification—more than a high school equivalency degree but not necessarily a four-year college education. Because of the ongoing development of new and old technologies, a growing number of employers require workers with middle skills. 

In 2015, the National Skills Coalition analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and found that “middle-skills jobs account for 53 percent of United States’ labor market, but only 43 percent of the country’s workers are trained to the middle-skill level.” Employers have trouble filling these middle-skill positions because there is a lack of sufficiently trained workers.

How Adult Basic Education Closes the Skills Gap

Little awareness of basic education and skills training programs may be what leaves 10 percent of the labor market without good paying jobs that would help them support their families. How do we change this and close the gap?

Adult basic education programs across the country want to prepare learners for additional skills training so they can move up the job ladders and into these middle-skills positions. Adults who lack foundational skills—the ability to successfully use the English language or literacy and numeracy skills—struggle to find educational or workforce training opportunities to gain middle skills.

Earlier this year, ProLiteracy conducted an Omnibus survey to gauge the national public awareness of adult basic education. After surveying 1,000 participants, we found that 89 percent were unaware of adult literacy and basic skills training programs in their communities. 

The Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) conducts the Survey of Adult Skills. The survey measures adults’ abilities in key information-processing skills—literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments. The survey concluded that of the 36 million American adults who lack foundational skills, 24 million are employed at low-wage jobs that limit opportunities for advancement. 


Anyone who is interested in or works to address the adult literacy crisis should know the role adult basic education plays in filling the skills gap. To advance in the workforce, adults who lack foundational skills need to be aware that basic literacy services and skill training programs in their communities exist. If everyone in the adult basic education field works together to increase awareness, we will be able to expand and fast-track access to such services. Increasing awareness of adult basic education programs would significantly fill the skills gap and diminish the unemployment crisis.


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