“Their Chances? Slim and None”: An Ethnographic Account of the Experiences of Low-Income People of Color in a Vocational Program and at Work

Publication November 1992

It is claimed that this is an information age in which ever more sophisticated literacy skills become essential for people to manage not only new technologies but their own everyday lives. Against the backdrop of rapid technological change, the current fear is that too many people–displaced workers, high school dropouts, many minorities, and non-native speakers–are hindered by insufficient literacy skills. The research reported here, conducted under the sponsorship of the National Center for Research in Vocational Education, focused on an “at-risk” segment of the population–the non college-educated youth referred to as the “forgotten half” by the Grant Commission (1988), and other re-entry and minority adults. It sought to understand the relationship between the literacy skills these adults are increasingly expected to have or to acquire and vocational education and work.

The project, called “Preparing a Literate Workforce,” was conducted jointly by Glynda Hull and Jenny Cook-Gumperz and was designed to address questions such as

  • What roles do literacy skills play in the work world, and how essential are they to success in a job?
  • How applicable is college-based learning to work contexts?
  • How does learning on the job differ from learning in a school setting?
  • What kinds of literacy curricula are best suited for “at-risk” adults in vocational programs?

To address these questions, we explored in ethnographic detail two possible ways for adults to re-enter education and to prepare for transition back into the workforce with additional skills and experience. In a community college, one pathway is through basic skills to certification programs. It can be short-term, leading to a college in-house certificate, or it can involve a longer program of study, leading to an externally recognized degree certificate or license. We selected as a short-term case study a banking and finance vocational program and as a long-term example, a program to train licensed vocational nurses. Banking and Finance is an open-entry, open-exit program leading to a certificate and in most cases immediate job placement. Nursing, however, requires a one-semester, prenursing course and three semesters of combined classroom work and clinical training leading to a state board examination to grant a license. Although students often have difficulty with the literacy requirements of the programs and/or the workplace, neither program is set up to deal with basic skills, which traditionally have not been the province of vocational training. One of the purposes of our project, then, is to call attention to ways in which there can be a dialogue between vocational educators and the providers of training in basic skills and academic literacies–a dialogue that would ease the transition that students must make between basic skills programs, vocational programs, and employment or further academic training.

The following report, written by Glynda Hull with assistance from Kay Losey Fraser, focuses on the vocational program in banking and finance.

Hull, G. (1992, November). “Their chances? Slim and none”: An ethnographic account of the experiences of low-income people of color in a vocational program and at work. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

Download the report (PDF)