Employers offer basic-skills classes

When adult education classes aren’t available, employers are stepping in to teach reading, basic math and English fluency to low-skilled workers, writes Sarah Butrymowicz on the Hechinger Post.

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.

Hospitals, hotels and the food-service industry often offer classes on company space and sometimes company time. Maw’s classes are offered by her union.

Despite the recession, some employers can’t find entry-level workers with academic skills. They hire for “a rudimentary grasp of English and a good work ethic,” then provide training.

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)

At the hotel training center, workers in basic-skills classes hope to qualify for a “coveted banquet-server position, which can pay up to $70,000 a year.” (Why so lucrative?) Others go on to community college and beyond.

In 2004, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston began training employees to fill dozens of vacancies for lab or surgical technicians. Many needed remedial coursework in basic reading, English, math and science. Then the center added GED preparation and English classes for immigrants.

Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit that helps health care companies train their workers, reports that 60 percent of its participants earned certification or a degree and 47 percent received raises.

Some of these workers are immigrants, but others went through U.S. schools without acquiring basic reading, writing and math skills.

Years ago, my grandfather figured out why shipments were going astray in his factory. Some of the forklift drivers couldn’t read; they usually guessed correctly about what went where, but not always. He offered free reading classes after work to anyone who wanted help. The turnout was huge.  These were native-born, U.S.-educated Americans.

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  1. Why on earth are there illiterate Burmese immigrants with low-paying jobs in this country?

    And since employers push for cheap labor, they can bite it when they end up educating it.

  2. Given the “work ethics” I’ve seen in some American kids, I’m not entirely surprised hotels are hiring Burmese immigrants who can barely speak English.

  3. Well, Cal, since they’re looking for people with a ‘work ethic’ they’re probably happy to take immigrants and teach them basic skills– after all, ‘arithmatic’ is teachable, ‘work ethic’ is not.

    The money question is, “Why don’t uneducated native-born Americans have a work ethic?” Well, actually, now that I think of it, it might just be that if you HAVE a work ethic and are native born, you’ve taken enough advantage of the free educational oppurtunities that you don’t NEED to take an entry level job at a hotel. And if you ARE only qualified for entry-level-service, you probably didn’t apply yourself in school–so no work ethic.

    For native born, educational attainment/certifications can stand in as a way to determine ‘work ethic.’ Even people who slacked off in HS graduated and then could get certifications in the things that interested them (like computer networking, which is often more of a ‘skilled trade’ sort of training path than a ‘degree-oriented’ one.)

    For immigrants, OTOH, education and work ethic DON’T necessarily go hand and hand, but for many jobs WILLINGNESS to learn is more important than pre-acquired skills.

  4. Stacy in NJ says:

    If the Americans had a reasonable work ethic they’d be able to read. While we have many crappy schools, we also have immigrant kids who take advantage of those crap schools to aquire basic skills. Education is available to almost anyone in the US who wants it. Quite frequently native born Americans don’t want it. The streets call: welfare, crime. Who wants to wash dishes for minimum wage for 10 hours per day?

  5. MagisterGreen says:

    So, how long will it be before the government mandates that employers who do this have to receive ‘certification’ so that their courses meet ‘college-level standards’?

  6. The money question is, “Why don’t uneducated native-born Americans have a work ethic?

    Wrong. The money question is why do we import cheap labor? Immigrants don’t have a right to be here. If we don’t have illiterate immigrants here, then employers will have to raise the price until they get the workers they need. That’s how it works.

    Besides, your “money question” is moronic. Plenty of illiterate immigrants have no work ethic. Employers want uneducated immigrants over uneducated natives because of selection bias–they know the uneducated immigrants are more likely (not certain) to be more motivated. Well, too bad. Our immigration and education policy should not be helping illiterate immigrants drive down the cost of the labor pool.

  7. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Three people were sitting in a field: the king and two peasants. The king said, “I have a thousand pounds of gold, and I need someone to carry my bags. Who will work for me?”

    Peasant one, who wanted his wife to have a new dress and his children to have their first pair of shoes, said, “I will do it for two pounds of gold.”

    Peasant two, who was living in squalor and seemed satisfied with it, said, “I will do it for one pound of gold.”

    The king hired Peasant two.

    The next day the three met in the field again. The king said, “I have 999 pounds of gold, with more on the way, and I need someone to shine my shoes. Who will work for me?”

    Peasant one, thinking still of his family and the sort of life he wanted to lead, said, “I will do it for two pounds of gold.”

    Peasant two, still satisfied with his squalor, said, “I will do it for one pound of gold.”

    The king once again hired Peasant Two.

    The next day, the king and Peasant One met in the field. The king looked at him and said, “It’s going to cost me two pounds of gold to get you to bury Peasant Two, isn’t it?”

    And they lived happily ever after.

  8. Sean Mays says:

    When I was teaching in Boston (2006ish), the fast food chains couldn’t find enough qualified teenagers to man the shops; at the wage they wanted to pay. They resorted to (paying for) bussing kids in from places like Natick and Needham and Wellesley.

    Although this story is about low skilled workers, think for a minute about our country’s STEM policy. We’re pouring lots of money into K-PhD education with the cry of MORE STEM majors. Meanwhile factories and plants shut down and offshore; decreasing demand; decreasing the value of these degrees. When Bill Gates, Andy Grove, et. al. demand more STEM, ask yourself if they’re being altruistic, or trying to lower the cost of hiring American trained engineers.

  9. I don’t have to ask myself. I know that’s what they’re trying to do.

    In fact, I often wonder if Gates’ entire “improve the schools” effort is nothing more than something he can point to while demanding more H1B visas. “Look, I’m doing my best to improve the schools, but until then….”

  10. Mark Roulo says:


    Bill Gates hasn’t been CEO of Microsoft since 2000.

    He has been gone from Microsoft day to day operations
    (except, maybe, for an emeritus type role) since 2008, though
    he is still chairman of the board (and owns about 8% of the

    If he wanted to help out Microsoft, he has much more direct
    ways of doing so that by screwing up the US K-12 education
    system to justify more H1B visas.

    I don’t like the man, but he really hasn’t been focused on Microsoft
    for quite some time.

    Much more likely is that he is sincere, but has no clue about K-12
    education for average and below average kids.

  11. Sigh. I am well aware of the various points on Gates’ resume. And if you were familiar with his history, rather than just his resume, you’d realize how irrelevant his current position is to his interests.

    Besides, I said “I wonder”. It was partly–but only partly–hyperbole. But his current job status is still irrelevant.

  12. Supersub says:

    Funny, we just had a faculty meeting this week in which our principal asserted that employers were looking for employees that had 21st century skills and that hadn’t simply focused on basic math and writing…