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Ana, a 52 year old cafeteria cashier, completes an ESOL workbook exercise on the board at Harvard University’s Bridge Program. (Photo by Sarah Butrymowicz)

BOSTON— Across the U.S., thousands of workers stuck in low-paying jobs are trying to get a leg up through free basic-skills classes that train them in everything from elementary math to basic literacy.

Mya Maw, a 52-year-old Burmese immigrant, longs for a stable office job in Boston, where she’s raising twin teenage daughters and washing dishes at a hotel. To help reach her goal, she spends most mornings sitting through two hours of English or computer instruction, taking advantage of free basic-skills classes that are a small but significant part of a fractured U.S. adult-education system.

“I want to improve step by step,” said Maw, who dropped out of ESL courses that were too expensive for her in favor of classes at Boston’s Local 26 Hotel Training Center, a nonprofit funded primarily by the local hotel union.

No one tracks the number of such programs offered nationally—or how well they work—but hospitals, hotels and the food-service industry have provided them for years, often in company space and even on company time. They are an integral part of workplace training and adult education.

“The literacy skills, the basic-education skills of the frontline workforce are an enormous issue for people in many, many industries,” said Pamela Tate, president of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning in Chicago. Tate wants to see more private companies fill the void with programs like the one Maw is in. “We need them more than ever.”

Basic-skills programs that create opportunities for career advancement are unique, said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Most of the $135 billion spent annually on employee training goes to things like improving managerial or technical skills. A fraction of that amount—about $6 billion—is spent on basic-skills courses.

Still, in today’s economy, Carnevale wonders whether there are any incentives for people to develop new programs, as high unemployment rates mean companies likely have no shortage of literate workers to pick from.

But some companies say they can’t ask for much more than a rudimentary grasp of English and a good work ethic when it comes to entry-level jobs, and so they opt to train workers after they’ve been hired.

basic skills classes
Mya Maw, 52, helps other students in Boston’s Hotel Training Center’s lowest level computer skills class. Maw, a hotel dishwasher, takes the next level computer course and English classes at the center. (Photo by Sarah Butrymowicz)

Many employees who take advantage of these programs hope to learn enough to move up the career ladder. For example, a number of workers at the hotel training center here take basic-skills classes in hopes of getting a coveted banquet-server position, which can pay up to $70,000 a year. Others want to continue on to higher education, and the training center’s career coaches help them map out paths to community college and beyond.

Employers say they also stand to benefit by creating a loyal workforce and increasing the pool of qualified candidates so they have more opportunities to promote from within.

In 2004, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center had dozens of vacancies for positions like medical-lab or surgical technician. Unable to fill the positions through traditional hiring, the medical center created a program to train current employees.

“We found that a lot of people weren’t really ready to do college-level work,” said Joanne Pokaski, Beth Israel’s director of workforce development. “They needed to do a lot of remedial-level courses.”

The center established another set of courses—in basic reading, English, math and science—to prepare them. After discovering this wasn’t always enough, the center started offering GED preparation as well as English classes to non-native speakers. In all, about 500 employees take the free classes every year.

This program would allow someone to start at the hospital as a janitor or cafeteria worker with only a basic understanding of English, enroll in ESL classes and end up with an associate degree working as a lab technician or nurse—although doing so can take a long time.

“Progress is slow,” said Laurie Fitzpatrick, a program manager in Beth Israel’s office of workforce development. In ESL classes alone, it takes about 128 hours of classroom time to move up a single level. With classes meeting twice a week for two hours, this translates into 32 weeks—and there are seven levels.

Anecdotal evidence reveals strong support for such programs, with both workers and employers relating success stories of promotions and raises.

Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit that developed a nationwide program with 17 companies in the healthcare industry to train frontline workers for careers, has found that about 60 percent of its participants earned some sort of certification or degree and 47 percent received raises.A 2009 study by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research found that workplace literacy programs increased students’ interest in attending college and that employers and employees alike “reported significant morale gains and frequent productivity gains.” A 1995 study of workplace literacy programs done by Indiana University found that these programs improve reading at work, but only when the reading directly related to what was covered in class.

Indeed, while some places like Beth Israel offer classes that are very general, others emphasize building vocabulary and the skills that individuals need for a specific industry or job.

Many who design and work in such programs say that basic-skills classes—no matter how they are taught—are helpful to these individuals, even if they change industries later. For example, some employees might need to fill out safety forms on the job, which they’ll learn how to do in a basic-skills class.

“That’s how they’ll learn writing,” said Connie Nelson, director of the Massachusetts Worker Education Roundtable, a network of worker-education programs in the Bay State.

basic skills classes
Harvard University Bridge Program students go over a workbook exercise in Jennifer Goulart’s ESOL class. (Photo by Sarah Butrymowicz)

Those enrolled in such programs are typically eager to acquire new skills. And though balancing classes with a full-time job and raising children isn’t easy, many find a way to do so. Some, like Maw, even opt for longer days in exchange for more classes and, hopefully, speedier improvement.

“It’s amazing,” said Carla Fontaine, a career counselor at Harvard University’s Bridge to Learning and Literacy program, which offers courses to the school’s employees. “They do gymnastics to make it work.”

Harvard has several success stories under its belt, including many workers who started out in low-paying jobs but are now working toward master’s degrees. Although higher education isn’t the endgame for everyone, Harvard tracks the economic impact of its program on all participants. After completing bridge-program classes and getting promoted, many employees have seen their hourly salaries jump from around $9 or $10 to over $15. That can make a huge difference.

“Maybe they don’t have to work two jobs now,” Fontaine said. “They can take classes at night or they can be home.”

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  1. As a former public school ELL teacher, I realize the crucial role parent success plays in student success. Lift up the parent, and the student will be lifted up, too.

    We in public education too often focus solely on the academic needs of the student. That’s understandable given our limited time with the students and crushing workload (not to mention all the accountability chips on our shoulders). But articles like this remind me to think outside the little box I tend to create. I can probably effect more change in my students’ performance by paying attention to what is going at home.


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