A Reading Of Employers Finds Concern Over Literacy

Posted: October 29, 1988

Philadelphia-area employers face growing difficulties in finding workers with adequate reading, writing, arithmetic and other skills, according to a survey released yesterday by the Mayor's Task Force on Literacy in the Workplace.

The study echoed concerns of employers nationwide, who are worried that the skills of the workforce are not keeping pace with the requirements of jobs that rely increasingly on advanced knowledge and high-level technology.

The survey covered 27 employers, five of whom said they were dissatisfied with literacy levels of their workers, the task force report said.

A much greater number, 15 of the 27, said they were dissatisfied with the skills of people who were applying for jobs - a sober warning, said Jack L. Ernsberger, vice president and area manager of IBM Corp., who chaired the task force.

Results of the survey were presented at a conference on workplace literacy held at the Academy of Natural Sciences, where representatives of four local employers described programs they were using to help raise the literacy and technical skills of their workers.

Many companies dismiss the literacy problem, Ernsberger said, preferring simply to fire a person who proves incapable of doing a job. But "there's a cost to that," he warned about 125 people attending the conference.

The cost goes far beyond the dollars spent to recruit and train a replacement employee, warned Theodore Hershberg, professor of public policy and history at the University of Pennsylvania and opening speaker at the conference.

Failure to educate the young will leave America with an increasingly disadvantaged and disaffected underclass and with insufficient intellectual capital to support the needs of the economy, he said.

But raising the educational level of the workforce won't be an easy task, according to panelists who described company-sponsored programs that allow employees to earn high-school equivalency degrees.

At First Pennsylvania Bank, for example, only 15 of of 140 employees who had not completed high school signed up when the company inaugurated a General Equivalency Diploma (GED) program last year, said Robert M. Kirkpatrick 3d, senior vice president and director of human resources.

At Nabisco Brands Inc., "our major concern" is that very few employees are motivated to take the course, said Ira Tiffenberg, manager of human resource development at the company's Philadelphia bakery.

People are frequently embarrassed to reveal deficiencies in their reading and arithmetic skills, and may even be fearful of losing their jobs, said the human relations managers.

Nabisco is particularly concerned about upgrading skills because it is modernizing its plant.

"We need people with higher skills to operate robotics and automated equipment," said Tiffenberg. The company instituted a GED and basic literacy- skills program "so people could have the basics for future training," he said.

Another panelist, Nabisco machinist Kathryn Schneider, earned a GED through the program and now hopes to go on to computer school.

"A machine operator isn't just pushing buttons anymore," she said. "You must be able to read computers to operate the machine."

At IBM Corp., the concern has gone beyond simple literacy to the question of whether workers have the skills required to manage new, automated manufacturing equipment, said Don Barkley, manager of IBM's "Production Employee of the Future" program.

With complex workstations that can perform many manufacturing processes, the worker must control material flow, perform maintenance and be responsible for the quality of the product, Barkley said, making the employee a technical manager rather than just a production hand.

Such a worker needs the equivalent of a two-year college degree, and IBM has set up an elaborate program for providing this training to about 22,000 production workers.

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