Illiteracy holds us back in global marketplace

Lost in the flap over Gov. Nikki Haley's misstatements about job applicants' drug test failure rate at the Savannah River Site are the very real statistics about illiteracy in South Carolina.

Haley tripped up in claiming that 50 percent of job applicants at the nuclear facility had failed a drug test and half of those who passed the drug test couldn't read and write.

But she's right to want to focus on job training, and that starts with helping the many people in our state who can't read, write or speak English proficiently. We are butting our heads up against a wall in trying to recruit higher paying jobs for all if we can't overcome this problem.

The National Institute for Literacy defines literacy as "the ability to read, write and speak English proficiently, to compute and solve problems, and to use technology in order to become a life-long learner and to be effective in the family, in the workplace and in the community."

Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry reports:

  • Fifteen percent of South Carolinian adults lack basic literacy skills.
  • Eleven percent of Beaufort County adults and 27 percent of Jasper County adults lack basic literacy skills.
  • Area businesses report more than 50 percent gaps between their needs and applicants' skills.
  • Sixty-two percent of individuals receiving services from the state Department of Social Services in South Carolina have not completed high school.
  • Nationally, low literacy costs American businesses and taxpayers more than $60 billion annually in lost wages, profits, and productivity, according to the National Council of State Directors of Education. Patterns of illiteracy are intergenerational. The greatest single indicator of a child's academic success is the education of the parents.

    Forty-five percent of adults in local jails and 40 percent in state prisons have low literacy skills.

    Hard times make it even harder for people without basic skills to find employment. If we hope to turn around this state's 11 percent unemployment rate and compete for jobs that pay well, we must turn around these grim statistics.

    It can be done. Literacy Volunteers has shown us how -- one determined student at a time. Earlier in September, which Haley proclaimed South Carolina Literacy Month, we learned about Mayira Diaz, a Colombian immigrant, who at age 49 learned English and went on earn her high school equivalency diploma. She is one of the group's many success stories.

    Haley's proclamation hits the nail on the head with this statement: "Boosting literacy for all South Carolinians helps strengthen our communities and ensure our continued success in the global marketplace, while enhancing the quality of life of all our residents."

    Our success locally, statewide and nationally depends on tackling this problem. We're all in this together.