Teaching The Grown-Ups

Almost any policy conversation about the job creation and unemployment contains a persistent undercurrent about adult education. It usually surfaces in the context of the "skills gap." People want jobs, but they don't have the skills to get the ones that are available.

The problem goes much deeper than that. According to the low-income advocate group CLASP, 93 million adults have basic skills deficiencies that could limit their economic and career potential. Yet only about two million of these adults have gotten any basic education from government programs.

"There's not as much attention [to adult education] because it doesn't have as much money," said National Skills Coalition Federal Policy Director Rachel Gragg. Because resources are scarce, job training counselors are faced with few answers for the very low-skilled adults who walk through their doors. "You kind of triage and do the best that you can. For somebody who has tremendous barriers to employment, it's hard to know sometimes how to start."

President Obama alludes to adult education but doesn't dwell on it when he talks about returning two million workers to community colleges to learn skills "that will lead directly to a job." Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also talks about job training as a part of the budget solution that will avoid the "fiscal cliff" of higher tax rates and automatic spending cuts. "We have to empower people with the skills they need to fill middle class jobs," Rubio said at the Washington Ideas Forum sponsored by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute.

What are the biggest challenges to educating low-skilled adults? Do they need different services than dislocated workers who are transitioning to new careers? Does Obama's focus on the "skills gap" help bring attention to the issue? Or does the conversation need to go deeper? What are the best venues to help these people? Municipal centers? Community colleges? Federal job training programs?

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