Workplace Literacy: Is There a Role for Vocational Institutions

Publication July 1995

This report examines five case studies of workplace literacy initiatives. Except for the Twin Cities Opportunities Industrialization Center (TCOIC), which is the actual name of that institution, pseudonyms are used throughout when referring to people and institutions. Broadly defined, workplace literacy in this study refers to the several kinds of capabilities and dispositions (such as the three Rs, learning how to learn, teamwork, problem-solving skills, and communication skills) that are now thought to comprise the necessary possessions one needs in order to function competently in today’s workplace.

In the first case, Redwood Technical College, a two-year postsecondary vocational institution, collaborated with the Union Educational Bureau to deliver a basic skills program to housekeepers and food service workers at four hospitals under the terms of a federal grant. In the second case, North Oaks Technical College, also a two-year postsecondary vocational institution, executed a workplace literacy project on contract for a high-tech manufacturing company. In the third case, a private provider, the Workplace Education Center (WEC), delivered a basic skills program to nonsalaried workers at the branch of a large bank. In the fourth case, this same provider delivered an English as a Second Language (ESL) program to immigrant service workers at the branch of a large chain of hotels. The fifth and final case describes the approach of the TCOIC, a nontraditional vocational institution that focuses on marginalized populations, and which places heavy emphasis on basic skills even as it offers technical skills.

The problem was to understand better what transpires within workplace literacy programs–what are their premises and claims, their curricular stances, and their approach to teaching and learning–with the intent of resolving the basic question of whether vocational institutions can claim uniqueness or a comparative advantage over other providers in the workplace literacy enterprise.

Case methodology allowed detailed examination of the five initiatives. The inquiry took the form of formal and informal interviews, document examination, and on-site observation.

Based on a review of literature, a set of premises or hypotheses was set forth to provide a framework against which each case could be interrogated. These premises/hypotheses were that vocational education institutions would have a comparative advantage in the extent to which they (1) had long traditions of collaborating with industry to derive workplace-based curricula, (2) catered to diverse and marginalized populations among whom could be found enclaves of illiteracy, (3) provided both initial and upgraded training geared to lifelong learning, and (4) offered basic skills in the functional context of technical skills. These premises/hypotheses were loosely set as criteria that helped to resolve the question of uniqueness and comparative advantage.

Taken together, the cases unearthed some critical features which, if present, seemed to strengthen the case for a vocational institution claiming uniqueness or comparative advantage over other providers in the workplace literacy enterprise. Among these features were the following:

  1. a tradition of working collaboratively with industry to determine their training needs and deriving curriculum therefrom
  2. a customized training focus
  3. distance education capability that would allow the delivery of programming directly to workplaces from campus sites
  4. capability to deal with racial and ethnic minorities
  5. capability of dealing with immigrant non-English speaking populations
  6. Adult Basic Education (ABE) capability, including ability to diagnose basic skill deficiencies and to distinguish between functional needs and generic needs
  7. a tradition of integrating basic skills with technical skills training (i.e., of teaching basic skills in the functional context of technical skills)
  8. flexible scheduling to allow for self-paced learning, and a willingness to give students the time they need to complete programs
  9. ability to work collaboratively with labor representatives

A primary conclusion of the study was that to lay claim to uniqueness or to comparative advantage, a requirement was that vocational institutions should play to their strengths, which include a tradition of hands-on learning, and keeping basic skills and theory tightly connected with technical skills, either in applied instruction (e.g., welding math, business English) or in physical proximity to allow literacy classes to act as a vocational hook.

Lewis, T., Griggs, M., Flister, S., Konare, A., Githeko, J. M., & Chemengen, N. C. (1995, July). Workplace literacy: Is there a role for vocational institutions. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

Download the report (PDF)