Literacy (and life) is more than workplace essential skills


- Up-dated Aug. 3rd -

I spotted this on a site I often visit for comment on larger and smaller events in US politics and culture:

People have a lot of stupid ideas about the vast riches that recipients of disability, or welfare, or SSI have to roll in, but the thing that gets me is that you don't have to press too hard to get these people to tell you that they assume those recipients are precisely the people they wouldn't want to hire and sure don't want to work with. If you really think someone is lazy, shiftless, a doddering old fool or whatever other stereotype you impart to "losers", there's no way you want them working with you. "They don't want to work," you hear them say, and when they insist that such people should just "get a job," well, what do they think such people could contribute to their workplace? What I know is that the world is full of people who don't fare well in the workplace, who are inept at office politics, don't have whatever attitude is fashionable at the moment, don't even know how to dress the part, and though they may be very bright indeed, they end up losing jobs because they simply don't fit in. And the people who force them out of those jobs don't seem to worry much about where they will go next. To another place where they are unwanted? To a cardboard box in the sewers? To your office? Whether they are bright but inept at the office game or simply lazy people who "don't want to work", just what is the virtue of torturing them and those around them by forcing them to search for jobs they will function poorly at and ultimately lose? Personally, it seems to me that in an ideal world, it would be a jolly good thing to have the government pay people who can't function in the workplace to stay out of the way of those who are trying to get things done. Who knows, maybe if they had a guaranteed living income and could just sit around reading or playing games on their own, they could come up with some bright idea that would create jobs for other people who, you know, want to work. Hell, the worst that could happen is that a bunch of "losers" would be spending money in the economy and creating demand.
                                      Avedon Carol at The Sideshow, August 2012

Somewhere in all that is an idea very close to one that's been bouncing about in my head for about 18 months.  As a question, it would be something like, "What do I do with the adults who enter my class with the stated goal of improving their skills and finding a job, but also with visible mental or physical health, cognitive, age-related or socio-cultural barriers?  What do I say to the family member or institution that referred them (sometimes under threat of withdrawn support)?"  A related question would be, "Where, in our cities, are such people allowed to live and, in their own way, contribute, unhounded by do-gooders and bullies?"  I'm sorry that these are impolite questions.  I assure you they are real ones that are asked frequently when facilitators speak privately with one another.

A former mayor of Saint John gave a speech at a literacy funder raiser wherein, after praising the GED-bound learners for their progress, he said he wanted to make sure people knew there was a place for everybody in Saint John, including those who never obtain a GED.  It was a wonderful, heart-warming thing to say, and I believe he meant it.  But here's the thing…

Here's the thing.

I don't think he meant that there was a place for everyone in Saint John's employment rolls.  I don't think he meant everybody gets to have a job.  Well, he couldn't have.  There aren't enough jobs to go around.  Even factoring in fly-by-night commission jobs and out-bound telesales jobs, we're short by a factor of ten.

A place for everyone.

So fund literacy, yes.  By all means.  But understand that literacy means reading and writing and numbers, and some information about geography and politics and science and the human body, and maybe some basic life skills like using a computer or a cellphone or operating other household machinery or making soup from scratch or some such.  Don't fund literacy if you think you're funding a some kind of finishing school for potential employees or a welfare to work scheme - unless, of course, you're going to give me several million dollars yearly so I actually can employ people.

And come to my class to learn, yes.  By all means.  As long as, together, we are making progress - and as long as some part of society is willing to foot the bill for this open-ended learning (because I have to pay the rent) - you are welcome to learn as much and as long as you wish.  But if you want a job, well… I wish you all the success in the world.  But I'm not an employment counsellor, I have no special skills or insights into successful job hunting, and I am not prepared to invest time or energy toward your job search.*

Support for improved adult literacy is not a poverty reduction strategy.  High rates of unemployment are not caused by insufficient education.  Moreover, the idea of a job for everyone is both silly and - when used punitively - irresponsible.


*Here I draw a distinction between, for example, someone who wants to learn how to read a job board or make a resume and cover letter, and someone who wants me to tell them which jobs are good jobs and what they should say on their resume and cover letter to get one.


Up-date: Yeah, but no

A compassionate commenter wrote "I agree Wendell that there are not jobs for everyone, and of course, there are some folks that unfortunately no one would ever hire. On the other hand, there are lots of great people who I would hire in a minute if they were literate enough to work in my office."

But I'm sure that's not true.  The Government of New Brunswick has a hiring freeze on.  The civil service is not taking on "lots of great people" right now.  So, no, this person wouldn't hire "lots of great people" no matter how literate they were.  If my whole class obtained their PhDs, they still wouldn't get a job in this office until a job opens up.

Now, what she means is that if she could hire them - if jobs opportunities appeared - she would hire them, if only their skills were up to par.  But if we are going to hypothesize that there are jobs opening up, why not also hypothesize that these people receive solid in-house training and rise to the occasion?

I'm not being bloody-minded and contrarian here.  I'm saying that it is - at best - dishonest to say to someone, "I'd hire you if you were more literate," when, in truth, you wouldn't hire these person no matter what their skills because your budget does not allow it.

When I graduated, NB was moving into a recession and many in my class had a hard time finding work.  At a certain point in this process (and as Frank McKenna became our premier) talk radio programs explained that the reason for our unemployment was our lack of skills suitable to the "new" workplace.  Meanwhile, an awful lot of my friends and neighbours moved out to Alberta where they quickly secured jobs.  Most of these are looking toward retirement now, having had steady, well-paid employment over the past three decades.  In NB, we silly sods who stayed behind are still talking about how to reskill our work force so they can finally get all those hypothetical jobs.  Indeed, my commenter tells this story:

My nephew, who has not finished high school, could not earn enough here in NB to live on. He went to Alberta where the labour market is tight and is making $35/hour. He has had a number of jobs in the last 9 months, each one better than the last. AND, his employers have been willing to put him in the apprenticeship program. In NB the apprenticeship program wouldn't touch him.

But none of that yet touches upon the other problem - the one I've been trying to sort out and articulate - about finding a place in our community and lives for folks we know aren't going to find conventional jobs; people with mental health issues, for example, or chronic pain issues, or addiction issues.  With September around the corner, lots of adults will choose to try out an adult education class.  Some will be encouraged by friends and support workers who will dangle make-believe well-paid, lasting jobs in front of them.

I can help these people learn to read better, or come to enjoy mathematics, or get a handle on basic computing.  But - with one or two exceptions - that won't really change their dependence on the state or charity organizations for their income, housing, clothing and food.  And it will - and this is a very harsh thing to say - take a seat and opportunity away from someone who could end up better off economically if they upgraded their skills.


"What is sad to me," my commenter wrote, "is the assumption that is often made that there is something 'wrong' with people who struggle with literacy and learning."

I hear you.  But what is frustrating for me is the assumption that is often made that literacy and learning are all that is 'wrong' with people who struggle with poor health and poverty.

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