Last Friday, I was invited to represent both Digital Promise and the National Coalition for Literacy at the White House Upskill Summit, joining 150 employers, labor leaders, foundations, non-profits, educators and tech innovators from across the U.S. to share ideas and strategies for equipping workers with the skills they need to advance into better jobs. Much of the discussion focused on “frontline workers” — those workers who deal directly with customers or who are directly involved in the most visible functions of a business, and who are often at the bottom of the organizational chart. Assembly workers, bank tellers, cashiers, and stock workers are examples.
During the summit, the White House announced new commitments being made by public and private partners in response to a call to action launched by the President in January “to help workers of all ages earn a shot at better, higher-paying jobs, even if they don’t have a higher education.”
I wish there had been more representatives from the adult education field present. For those of us who were there, it was a unique opportunity to advocate directly with employers on behalf of workers with very low skills—many of whom are part of that frontline workforce. As we know from PIAAC, two-thirds of the estimated 36 million adults in this country with very low literacy skills are employed, but often in low-paying, dead-end jobs. The lack of basic skills blocks millions of these workers from accessing the education and training they need to advance to better paying jobs.
I was impressed by the level of interest among participants in the needs of the lowest-skilled workers and in the U.S. adult education system in general. During his opening remarks, Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez specifically acknowledged that literacy and numeracy challenges often hold people back from advancing their careers beyond those frontline jobs, and this provided a perfect opening for me as I advocated for these workers throughout the day.
The summit closed with an address from Vice President Joe Biden, who tied the discussions held during the day to the broader goals laid out in his Job-Driven Training Action Plan from last year.