How wrongly defining “low-skilled workers” torpedoes workforce development success

How wrongly defining “low-skilled workers” torpedoes workforce development success

Words that I only heard sporadically at ed tech conferences a few years ago – “foundational skills,” “entry level skills,” “basic skills” – boomeranged around a buzzy conference hall earlier this month.

This is so heartening! I wanted to exclaim to the person nearest me. Finally, we’re focusing on the largest – and most sidelined – market: low-skilled workers. The same workers who want what their employers also want for them: to better their reading, writing and basic math for a better life.

Oh wait, we’re actually not talking about them, I thought as I listened to a prestigious, well-intentioned panel, and my optimism dampened. They’re saying low skilled but they mean semi skilled.

How could I tell? The unstated assumption that when the panelists said “phone” they meant smart phone. Millions of low-skilled workers don’t have one.

Or the panelists’ (and industry) assumption that the 24/7 accessibility of online classes removed the logistical barriers to learning. Not so much if you don’t have a computer at home or the skills to navigate one.

In the U.S., over 51% of our low skilled, low income learners at Cell-Ed don’t have a smart phone, computer at home or internet access. This is one of the reasons why we teach skills over all phones, no internet needed.

After 20+ years in this field, I’ve seen how starting with inaccurate assumptions about low-skilled worker torpedoes workforce development success.

And it’s not just because of the accessibility blind spots. There are glaring content ones, too. Specifically, the disconnect between who’s creating, marketing and selecting the material and training and who the content is for.

Take a poultry plant I recently spoke with that created a manual for their workers to maintain safety on the processing line. Mid-level managers felt they did a thorough job with the manual. The workers, however, continued to miss guidelines and risk accidents. Turns out the workers weren’t literate to the level needed. The managers had assumed they were.

Unfortunately so much of the limited content marketed at the employers of low-skilled workers is really for mid-level ones. For example, grammar classes instead of more basic reading comprehension ones. Or general English classes for Spanish speakers, when those speakers aren’t literate in Spanish and need to start there.

The end result, unsurprisingly, is workers who aren’t able to absorb and retain the material because it’s not fitted to their needs. Such poor outcomes are familiar territory for disappointed and frustrated workers and their employers.

But if we throw out our assumptions and deep dive on who these low-income workers are, what motivates them, what they prize, their actual – not perceived – ability levels, we can co-create content with them that will resonate. I happen to know this for a fact.

Blog originally posted:

Photo Credit: Washington Post 2012