THE ECONOMIST: Literacy and the workforce

Literacy is defined as “the ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential” by the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC—part of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)). Through my economist lens, another aspect of literacy is that it greatly enhances job opportunities for individuals and provides some near-term relief to the workforce shortage.

Below Level 1 literacy describes adults who can read brief texts on familiar topics and locate a single piece of specific information. Only basic vocabulary knowledge is required, and the adult is not required to understand the structure of sentences or paragraphs.

Level 3 involves reading and navigating dense, lengthy, or complex texts. Literacy Level 3 (roughly eighth grade according to the National Literacy Trust) and above are generally consistent with the ability to perform some type of technical or professional labor, yet many adults lack this capacity. Literacy is a crucial step in achieving a bachelor’s or higher degree, but there are many occupations requiring Level 3 literacy that are oriented to on-the-job or relatively shorter training programs. Adults reaching this threshold can become skilled workers in short order.

Texas lags the national literacy rate by a significant margin, with many areas being particularly low. An estimated 28% of the state’s population is below Level 1, compared to 22% across the nation. Only 40% of Texas adults have literacy of Level 3 or higher, with the US rate being 46%.

The PIAAC assesses adults in the official language or languages of each participating country. One aspect of the reason for low literacy rates in Texas is the large proportion of emerging English learners. According to the NCES, Texas has a significantly higher proportion of public-school students classified as “English Learners” than any other state. The Texas level of 20.1% is almost twice the national rate (10.3%). Improving literacy rates in Texas is thus a two-pronged issue involving both enhancing reading levels and overcoming language barriers, which often inhibit employment opportunities.

The Texas economy is enjoying substantial growth, and a natural outcome of that and current demographic patterns is a need for workers. Our projections indicate that about 38% of the demand for workers (from economic growth and replacements) over the next 10 years will be in jobs requiring Level 3 literacy. The fastest-growing occupations requiring Level 3 literacy include General and Operations Managers, Registered Nurses, Truck Drivers, and Software Developers.

Improving literacy rates should be a crucial aspect of workforce preparedness, enhancing the state’s prospects for future prosperity. From an individual perspective, higher literacy improves both quality of life and earning potential. Stay safe!