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How Literacy Is Taking People From Poverty to Pension

Workplace training can mean a life-changing second chance. #projectliteracy

Workplace literacy can mean the difference between being homeless and climbing the career ladder. Image via Flickr user Flazingo Photos (cc).

To meet Arthur Welch today, one might assume the 54-year-old bus driver has lived an ordinary life. But only recently did the veteran start putting together the pieces that make it “ordinary”—earlier this year Welch had a suspended license and no job. The Atlanta native grew up in one of the city’s crime-ridden Westside neighborhoods, but graduated from high school with a clean record. “I just managed to stay out of trouble,” he says, adding that most of his peers did not.

But after getting his diploma, Welch did not continue his education and instead enlisted in the military. Afterward, he struggled to find living-wage work and accumulated debt from child support he owed for his four children. He sought help, and found it at Goodwill, the thrift shop where many Americans donate clothes and home goods. A transitional employment program allowed Welch to learn basic job skills—résumé writing, interviewing tactics, communication do’s and don’ts—and work alongside professionals in retail shops for general training.

From the beginning, says Goodwill’s Elaine Armstrong, Welch had his eye on driving one of Atlanta’s public transportation buses. Through the help of Goodwill’s placement services, Welch accomplished his goal and now has a new plan: “In 10 years, I’ll be fully vested,” he says. In just a matter of months, Welch went from jobless and indebted to crafting a retirement plan that suits his needs.

With one of the highest poverty rates in the United States, Georgia has an unemployment rate of roughly 6 percent. Programs like Goodwill’s, which supplement lower levels of education with classes that teach workplace literacy and computer skills, can mean the difference between being homeless and climbing the career ladder.

Angelee Berry teaches workplace literacy in the same area where Arthur Welch was raised. “It’s a community where there’s a low income level [and] the quality of the school options are not the best,” she says. She explains that many of her students in programs run by local agency Literacy Action may have completed high school, but they “just had a poor academic experience.” Some say they were never taught how to do long division, use units of measurement, or read a ruler.

Beyond lacking workplace literacy—the basic literacy and numeracy skills needed for many jobs—her students come from a neighborhood where, like many across the United States, she says, “there’s definitely substance abuse and high crime rates, so people are involved in those activities in order to survive.” That reality, she says, means that some students are dropping out of school and selling drugs. “Or there’s addiction that is keeping them from being able to be gainfully employed.”

Given these realities, many see a very clear purpose in teaching workplace literacy. “We do this because it’s needed,” explains Gordon Ellis, director of employment at the Atlanta Center for Self Sufficiency. He adds, “because people make mistakes.” Ellis echoes Welch and Berry’s point that for those in low-income communities where crime is high, it’s easy to get into legal trouble, which then makes it more difficult to get a job that pays a living wage.

“There aren’t tons of employers that are willing to give second chances to people,” says Alicia Wilson, director of case management at the Central Outreach & Advocacy Center. Her organization is another provider of employment services for Atlanta’s underserved communities, and it offers access to computers for participants—an important service given the number of job applications that are available exclusively online. But before such second chances are offered, Wilson notes that “even if you were convicted of a minor felony years and years ago, you still have to check the box that you were convicted of a felony, and so that is a big barrier.”

Such barriers have been overcome through programs like Goodwill’s. Ralph Gibson is 60 years old and has been clean and sober for 28 months. For almost that long he has held a job that he secured through First Step Staffing, an employment services agency that helps individuals who have criminal backgrounds. Gibson has been putting his electrician and plumber certifications to use at interior construction jobs, and now has an interview lined up for a full-time job with benefits.

Berry, of Literacy Action, emphasizes the potential to leverage skills that people acquire through such programs. “It gives them credentials that they wouldn’t otherwise have—and opportunities for advancement and the establishment of a career in a particular field, as opposed to just a job.”

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