Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

What Literacy Skills Do Students Really Need for Work?

By Catherine Gewertz — September 25, 2018 | Corrected: October 04, 2018 5 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story included the wrong affiliation for Steve Graham. He is a professor at Arizona State University.

Schools are under growing pressure to make sure that students are ready for work or job training, as well as college, when they graduate from high school. But employers say their young hires haven’t learned the reading, writing, and verbal-communication skills that are most important to a successful working life.

That gap between reality and expectations begs a boxful of questions about whether there’s a preparation problem and, if so, how to solve it.

Should K-12 schools add workplace-oriented literacy skills to their already-heavy lineup of classics like the five-paragraph essay? Who should teach young people how to write an environmental-impact report or explain quarterly business results to investors: High schools? Colleges? Or are such skills better learned at work or in job-training programs?

Surveys of employers paint a picture of discontent. Executives and hiring managers report that they have trouble finding candidates who communicate well. Good oral-communication skills, in particular, rank especially high on employers’ wish lists, alongside critical thinking and working in teams.

But do companies’ hiring struggles mean that K-12 schools, colleges, and job-training programs are doing a poor job of preparing students for work?

Some labor economists argue that the much-ballyhooed “skills gap” is caused not by inadequate career preparation but by companies’ refusal to provide the pay and training necessary to get the workers they need. And many educators argue that the primary purpose of schooling isn’t to create a jobs pipeline but to prepare young people to be informed, active citizens.

Education Week‘s new special report on literacy and the workplace won’t be able to resolve these arguments for you. But it can give you a glimpse of how some schools and employers are grappling with the workplace-literacy demands that young people face. Relatively few K-12 schools, it seems, are seriously exploring this kind of work.

From Mechanics to Managers

Perhaps unsurprisingly, career and technical education programs are more likely than regular K-12 schools to teach literacy skills in ways that link directly and explicitly to work. Helping aspiring engineers decode complicated technical reports, for instance, can help students make real-world connections and fire up their motivation. But they also need strong general-literacy skills so they don’t bump into glass ceilings.

“Are we creating students who can be lifelong learners, not just the oil changers and mechanics, but the managers, the owners of the business? If you’re in it for that game, then reading is vitally important for their long-term success,” said Travis Park, who studies the integration of core academics into CTE programs as an associate professor of agricultural education at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

By most accounts, students are bringing weak writing skills into college and entry-level jobs. Eight years after nearly all states’ adoption of the Common Core State Standards, which call for more writing, studies show that high school students do very little substantive writing at all, let alone writing in specific genres such as business or science that would give them a taste of the working world.

The kinds of writing employers prize most are often not the most highly technical ones. They want workers who can explain things concisely, support their requests with evidence, and understand the appropriate shifts in tone necessary for different audiences. One teacher surveyed local employers and found that what they really wanted was for her to teach cursive writing, so workers could sign their paychecks.

Some kinds of workplace writing, however, should be taught by employers, because schools can’t cover them all, said Steve Graham, a professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, who specializes in writing instruction.

“If we make an assumption that writing differs by context, some of the responsibility [for teaching students] just realistically is going to have to fall on businesses, and I think businesses should accept that,” Graham said.

“Schools are not going to be able to be responsible for all … the different kinds of skills that [businesses] want. And even if they were more responsive, there would still need to be some on-the-job training.”

The Newest Literacy

Digital literacy is also claiming its place, alongside reading, writing, speaking, and listening, as a crucial skill set in the workplace. Education Week spent time with four employees in very different jobs at a big Delaware health-care provider and found that those new-age skills are essential at every stage of the employment ladder.

On the lower rungs, for jobs such as environmental service assistants (who clean and disinfect rooms) and patient-care technicians (who take vital signs), the ability to go beyond basic familiarity with apps and digital communications tools to manipulate and make sense of information using different software packages is a big key to advancement.

At the top rungs, people like health information management executives need deep clinical knowledge but also a rich understanding of where and how information is generated, stored, analyzed, presented, and used across different systems, and the ability to synthesize that information and use it to make strategic decisions.

“Schools absolutely need to be teaching these skills. If students don’t get the technological know-how and mindset to adapt to and learn these technologies, they can’t be competitive,” said Hiller Spires, a professor and senior research fellow in literacy education at North Carolina State University.

Matthew T. Hora, who studies workplace communication as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, urges schools and employers to embrace a blended concept of responsibility for workplace-literacy skills.

“I’ve talked to a lot of educators who think it’s not their job to prepare students for careers, that their job is to perpetuate disciplinary knowledge and build engaged citizens,” Hora said.

“But it’s problematic to completely ignore what is going to happen to these graduates when they go out into the world. We need to think about the labor market and careers and make sure that a broad range of things are on the table when we talk about the purposes of education.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2018 edition of Education Week as What Skills Do Students Really Need for Work?

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