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Literacy is Key to Workforce Development

It's always exciting to read about the promise of 1,500 new jobs - and even more gratifying to hear the emphasis on workforce training programs.

Despite our region's economic recovery, too many residents are still unemployed or underemployed. According to Empire State Development Corp., "employers across WNY and in all industry sectors say it is hard to find people who can do the jobs."

The situation in our region is that we have people who need jobs - and jobs that need people - but too many people are undereducated and underskilled and lack the literacy abilities needed in the 21st century workplace.

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Knowing this, we are pleased to hear that the new Employ Buffalo Niagara initiative will specifically provide workforce development skills for the many people who need them. This includes over 130,000 adults in Buffalo and Niagara Falls who have low literacy levels.

And we hope that this new initiative is beginning by addressing literacy levels first and foremost, as increasing literacy leads to better employment and better economic conditions. Our region cannot effectively prepare its workforce until we address workers' most basic needs. Low literacy limits the pool of qualified workers from which businesses can choose. This is a problem for both businesses and people alike.

Employers cannot find the employees they need because too many people cannot pass entrance exams for even basic positions. It doesn't mean they can't do the job - it means there is a barrier - a barrier that workforce development programs, specifically adult literacy programs, can help eliminate.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 50 percent of the chronically unemployed are functionally illiterate. Research abounds on the link between low literacy and grim prospects for employment. As noted in the Empire State Development Strategy for Prosperity report, eight of 10 Western New Yorkers with at least a four-year college degree are in the workforce while fewer than half without a high school diploma are employed.

Fortunately, there is a cure for low literacy. There are local organizations like ours that can improve literacy rates and help the unemployed become employable - but we need to be at the table. Literacy needs to be at the table. We can have the most beautiful workforce development training programs in the world - and they will be meaningless if the people in our region cannot participate in them. With the City of Buffalo's illiteracy rate at 30 percent, literacy must come first.

We need to fix this situation now, as it will only get worse. As workplaces become more complex and technology-based, illiteracy creates a gap between the workforce and the needs of businesses.
There is a great need for workforce development and training programs in our region because employment is a path out of poverty. We must address literacy issues first, however. Literacy enhancement is often the necessary first step in any employment training programs.

Tara Schafer is executive director of Literacy New York Buffalo-Niagara Inc.
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