Campus & Community

A Bridge to literacy, learning

6 min read

In an innovative move to bridge the gap between workers in low-paying jobs and those enjoying the nation’s booming new economy, Harvard University will launch a new workplace education program providing basic literacy and language skills and/or courses leading to a high school equivalency degree.

The new “Harvard Bridge to Learning and Literacy,” which will be open to those Harvard service workers, casual employees and employees of long-term Harvard service contractors who need it, will be offered on-site and free-of-charge during paid release time.

The “Bridge” Program will offer literacy, English as a Second Language (ESL), GED (high school equivalency degree), and pre-GED training as well as computer training and career development assistance to employees who lack basic educational skills. These employees are predominantly clustered in the service occupations at Harvard (i.e., kitchen and retail food employees, custodial and housekeeping staff, members of the grounds crew).

Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education and the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) at the Graduate School of Education will work together with the Office of Human Resources to develop the program.

Thirty-eight Harvard Faculty Club workers are already participating in a pilot program that will serve as a model for the larger program. When fully launched, it is expected to serve about 500 employees per year at an annual cost of $1.4 million.

John Sepulveda, a cook at the Faculty Club, immigrated from Colombia six years ago. Sepulveda said the pilot program has been very useful to him. Though he could speak English, he had a lot of difficulty reading and writing English. Those literacy skills have improved greatly since he began the basic skills course.

“I’ll keep taking the classes as long as I can,” Sepulveda said.

Deysi Gomez, a waitress in the Faculty Club’s banquet rooms, has been in the United States for two years, but she speaks very little English. The pilot program’s classes, she said, will help her communicate better with Faculty Club guests.

Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstine praised the program, saying it is the “most important contribution Harvard could make to the life and career prospects of its entry level workers. This program is consistent with the University’s core mission, and I am pleased that we are in a position to provide leadership in this vital area.”

Harvard, of course, is the workplace of many highly literate people. It is also the workplace of many people who lack basic reading, writing, and math skills. Faculty and administrators at Harvard frequently devote decades of their lives to the University. So do cafeteria workers and custodians, dishwashers and housekeepers.

The exact number of University employees who cannot read or write is unknown, but it is estimated to be well into the hundreds. Some of these people have not finished high school. Some are foreign-born, do not speak English well, and also cannot read their first language. As the proportion of jobs requiring math and reading skills increases, workers without those skills at Harvard and elsewhere will find themselves with even fewer opportunities to earn wages adequate to support themselves and their families.

The new program will give the Uni-versity’s least-skilled employees the training they need to move into better jobs, whether at the University or elsewhere. The new skills are estimated to boost their lifetime earning potential by as much as 2 to 3 percent. (The Conference Board, 1999, with data from the International Adult Literacy Survey, 1997.)

“This is the right kind of help for Harvard to offer because it uses our unique educational resources to give our workers the skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives,” Rudenstine said.

“Making the program available to longer-term casual employees and employees of service contractors recognizes that these individuals, though not part of our regular workforce, are part of the University community.

“The Bridge Program also benefits the University because it enables us to develop the skilled workforce we need from within our own ranks and improve productivity.”

A recent National Conference Board survey of employers offering on-site workplace education found that 83% reported an increase in the quality of their employees’ work; 87% reported improved morale and more than 60% reported improved labor-management relations and an increase in the number of employees promoted from within the organization.

Harvard’s expanded training program addresses an area of critical need in the state’s economy. Recent reports have chronicled the lack of basic skills training in Massachusetts, which has a large number of adults who are not able to read or write well enough to secure jobs. Meanwhile, employment trends suggest that the current tight labor market is apt to increase demand for workers with basic skills.

According to a recent report, Opportunity Knocks; Training the Commonwealth’s Workers for the New Economy, (March 2000, produced jointly by Mellon New England and The Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth and authored by John D. Donahue, Lisa M. Lynch and Ralph Whitehead, Jr.), Massachusetts doesn’t have enough training opportunities for those at the bottom of the pay-scale. “Massachusetts businesses are finding their competitive advantages eroding because critical positions are going unfilled… Massachusetts’ weak suit – compared to other states, and to our own needs – is providing skill-building opportunities for adults, especially lower-middle class and working class adults.”

“The economy is increasingly rewarding workplace skills, and imposing a harsher penalty for lacking those skills,” according to one of the report’s authors, Jack Donahue (a former Labor Department official and now the Raymond Vernon Lecturer in Public Policy at the Kennedy School.) “Helping low-wage workers boost themselves onto a trajectory of rising earning power is a terrific way for Harvard to define itself as a responsible employer–and is particularly fitting for an institution devoted to education. Let’s hope other major employers follow the University’s lead.”

Harvard already offers extensive training options to its regular employees, but these programs are aimed primarily at enhancing the abilities of those who are already working in higher level jobs. For instance, Harvard offers a tuition assistance program (TAP) to all full-time employees, which subsidizes tuition for Harvard courses and provides up to $2,000 per year for job-related courses at other colleges and Universities. However, TAP is often simply inaccessible for service workers, many of whom have multiple jobs and family obligations that make it impossible to attend or lack the basic literacy and educational skills that are a prerequisite.