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Wed January 9, 2013

Study Shows 27 Percent of Regional Workforce Lacks Literacy Skills

An overview of Community Data Center report on adult literacy in the New Orleans metro region.

A new study shows New Orleans and surrounding parishes are suffering economically from a poorly trained adult work force. The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center is calling for an “all hands on deck” approach to turn those numbers around.

Community Data Center researchers found 27 percent of the working age population in the seven-parish New Orleans region lacks literacy skills — higher than the 24 percent national average. That number is based on three indicators involving adults 18 to 64: those with no high school diploma; those with a diploma living below 200 percent of the poverty line; and those who speak English poorly, or not at all.

It translates to about 30,000 people each in the first two categories, and about 3,000 with limited English-speaking ability. Center Director Allison Plyer says improvements now happening at public schools are not enough to bolster the workforce needed for the future.

“That is absolutely essential, but what we need to understand it will take many decades — all the way until 2060 — for our full workforce to have gone through those public schools," Plyer said. "So we have to really consider the current workforce that is here, because even by 2025 two-thirds of the workforce will be people who are currently working-age adults, and 27 percent of whom are low-skilled.”

Nancy Pixley has a high school diploma and had jobs in retail and other companies. But, after losing her job after Hurricane Katrina, she decided to go back to school and study agriculture. First, she needed to brush up on skills required for Delgado College. Now in her 40s, she found the YMCA’s Educational Services program.

“They take an assessment of where you are and then they build from that," Pixley said. " You know, you have your reading, writing, math. It’s wherever you are in your life now, and you can just build on it. They helped me to get my grades up so that I didn’t have to take all the remedial at Delgado, and it’s been very helpful.”

YES spokeswoman Shannan Cvitanovic says the concept began in 1977 as part of an outreach by local pastors and offered one-on-one tutoring. It’s evolved into full-scale instruction for students on all levels.

“We have teachers who are giving classes four times a week to people of all levels,"Cvitanovic  said. "We have some who come to us as complete non-readers who need to learn basic phonics. We have people like Nancy Pixley who come to us who just need their skills polished a bit. For a lot of them it’s a question of confidence.” 

Another YES student is Deshawn Francois. She’s been attending for the past two and a half years with the goal of passing the GED and other tests needed to become a pediatric nurse.

“I really don’t have far to get my GED," said Francois. "Hopefully I could stay in long enough to get it and that’s my plan to get my GED. I would like to stay in New Orleans.”    

Plyer, who is chief demographer at the Data Center, says improving and keeping a literate workforce is vital to a robust economy for future employers.

“The changes that are needed to really align employers’ needs with the workforce training and adult education training available with the workers we have here right now, can be done quickly," Plyer said. "It won’t take years and years to set that up. But it needs to be sustained for a very long time.”  

She says a flexible and responsive system will depend not only on local and state funding, but philanthropy and a long-term federal commitment.