To educate a workforce or import one?

Stephen Beard Aug 6, 2007

To educate a workforce or import one?

Stephen Beard Aug 6, 2007


Doug Krizner: Like the U.S., Britain has a problem with basic skills. Seven million adults in the U.K. cannot read or write properly. Eleven million struggle to add and subtract. The British government has called on business to help remedy this situation, and business has responded. From London, Stephen Beard reports.

Stephen Beard: In a large London company, a staff training session is underway.

Teacher: Res- pons- i- bil – ity . . .anyone? Someone want to have a go? Remember what syllables are?

A handful of workers are learning to read and write. Among them Derek, a 47-year-old mechanic:

Derek: Well you see I left school with no education at all. Couldn’t even do me alphabet. So I slipped completely through the net, not knowing how to spell or write or do things.

For more than 30 years Derek has been crippled by his dyslexia.

Derek: Trying to go for jobs I think you struggle as well. Well you do, because you don’t want to fill out forms, you don’t want to show people that you’ve got a problem.

But he’s lucky. He works for one of the few British companies that are trying to help their illiterate staff, allowing them time off and even providing lessons.

Many more companies should do the same says Digby Jones, who was appointed by the government to investigate the U.K.’s lack of basic skills.

Digby Jones: If employers don’t do something about taking seven million adults who cannot read and write functionally, if we don’t do something about skilling these people, then we are going to get a very nasty and very unsafe 21st Century.

But David Frost of the British Chambers of Commerce, representing 100,000 British companies, says the government is asking business to sort out a huge mess of the government’s making.

David Frost: Half the school-leavers at the age of 16 in this country do not have the basic qualifications to equip them for the world of modern work. So business would say the government has a responsibility to get that right.

It’s our job to create wealth, he says, not to provide basic education. And anyway Britain can always rely on a well educated workforce from Poland and other east European states.

Frost: We have actually a large stream of migrant workers coming over from Eastern Europe who have those skills and more importantly they have a very strong work ethic. So we can cope.

Back in the literacy class another casualty of the British education system is struggling to cope.

Student: Oh . . .quail . . . qualifee . . . QUALIFY . . . qualify . . .

He and his classmates feel that Britain — and British business — owe them the chance to brush up their basic skills.

Student: Qualifications

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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