Improved literacy and numeracy skills will create a larger pool of qualified workers: Laureen Atkins

Laureen Atkins is the Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at The Literacy Cooperative.


Recently, the Fund for Our Economic Future presented survey data detailing how employers are attracting new employees or keeping current ones. The data revealed that talent shortages are widespread, with 93.6% of employers facing shortages and saying that the pool of qualified applicants does not meet their needs. When further asked about the biggest workforce-related challenges, 85% cited recruitment, with more than half again mentioning the lack of qualified candidates.

With that many unqualified candidates, what are we doing to develop their skills to qualify for these opportunities?

Low literacy and numeracy skills, or the ability to work with numbers, are contributing factors to the number of workers who are underqualified. Advancing these skills is an opportunity to create more qualified candidates seeking new employment and who are interested in advancing in their careers.

As a community, we need to provide long-term investments for the adults with the lowest literacy and numeracy levels to give them the time and opportunity to have economic mobility. Employers have the opportunity to make short-term investments in literacy and numeracy upskilling, which can result in immediate career placement and advancement.

According to the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), a cyclical, large-scale international study, the current state of the workforce indicates:

  • 54% of adults in Cuyahoga County are not at a proficient level of literacy.
  • 64% are not at a proficient level of numeracy.
  • The national average is consistent with Cuyahoga County’s.

Of the adults in the category of “not proficient,” 21% are at the lowest levels of literacy and 34% are at the lowest levels of numeracy. For these adults, it is difficult for them to read simple text, complete simple forms, or add and subtract. But what about the other adults included in these numbers who are not at the lowest levels? They could benefit from literacy and numeracy upskilling, and within a short period of time, be able to upgrade their skills to be job-ready. In fact, many semi-skilled blue-collar and white-collar jobs do not require skills beyond this “near” proficiency category.

Employers report offering training to current employees and hiring from within. PIAAC data show that the majority of workers not proficient in literacy and numeracy are employed. They have most likely adapted to their current duties but may face difficulties taking on new responsibilities. Therefore, these adults may lack confidence to apply for positions, especially if they know there is a pre-entry assessment or long period of on-the-job training. Offering training that integrates literacy and numeracy instruction provides an inclusive solution to those who need refreshers and are uncomfortable disclosing this information.

Together as a community, we can advocate to pool government and employer funding for adult education, workforce development and postsecondary education to integrate literacy and numeracy with occupational skills development. We can recommend to employers to bring literacy and numeracy advancement onsite, either through workplace literacy programs or incorporating literacy and numeracy refreshers with on-the-job training. We can advocate for government funding to reimburse employers that do not have sufficient resources but need these remedies to advance workers.

In addressing the labor shortage, we want to make sure the solutions are equitable and inclusive. Let’s simply include literacy and numeracy in any type of training. Let’s create a learning environment where unqualified candidates can learn what is needed to become qualified.

To learn more about integrating literacy and numeracy instruction into job training, click here.

How a Local Bakery is Using Its Talents to Advance Literacy


Pictured: Assortment of cookies.

Pictured:  Leah, the owner of Tiny Kitchen Bakeshop.


In January of 2022, Leah Schaffer, the owner, and sole-baker of Tiny Kitchen Bakeshop announced on her bakery’s Instagram page that she would be donating all of her January and February proceeds to The Literacy Cooperative. Soon after, The Literacy Cooperative reached out to Leah to conduct an interview to learn more about her and her bakery.


What prompted your decision to create the Tiny Kitchen Bakeshop?

Pictured: Assortment of cookies.

Pictured: Assortment of cookies.

Leah Schaffer: The idea for Tiny Kitchen Bakeshop (TKB) originated under a larger project called the Bakers Against Racism (BAR), which was created by a group of bakers in April of 2020, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests and COVID-19. This project called for home and professional bakers to host local bake sales to raise funds for different organizations within their community. Prior to this, I knew I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what I could do, so once I stumbled upon BAR I figured that this was something that I could do to give back in some way. I then hosted three different bake sales in June, July, and August of 2020 for three different organizations; due to the positive feedback

The main focus of TKB is to increase awareness and access to these different organizations in our community; I wanted to share good news with others during a time when bad things were happening.

How did you stumble across the Bakers Against Racism, and are you still affiliated with the organization?

Leah: I came across BAR through a Google search when I was trying to find a way to give back. I was making donations here and there to organizations but wanted to do more.

BAR is an ongoing project where you can stay connected with them as needed, they have helped me gather marketing materials in the beginning. Currently, the organization acts as a great cheerleader for reassurance, and I still use them as a source of information when needed.

How did you learn to bake?

Leah: Both my grandmother and mother are very good bakers, so I grew up understanding the magic of baking and the love that can be extended to others when you share baked goods. However, I was not much of a baker until after college, in fact, I used to either burn or underbake things quite often; in order for me to get good at baking, it took a lot of practice, asking questions, and watching others bake.

Are you incorporating family recipes into your menu, or do you handcraft all of your recipes?

Leah: Some of the recipes are family recipes, for example, the frosted sugar cookie is one that has been handed down from generation to generation. Others are recipes that I have found and tweaked to make them my own. Baking is a science so when you have the basic chemistry together, you can start changing as you see fit.

Pictured: Vegan chai cake.

Pictured: Vegan chai cake.

Are you developing anything new at this time?

Leah: The vegan cakes are definitely something new because a lot of people have been requesting vegan items. It took me a while to find a vegan cake recipe that I like, but now that I have found one, I am sticking to it and just altering it to the taste I am going for.

Do you plan on expanding Tiny Kitchen Bakeshop?

Leah: For the past month, I have been working with two mentors that are a part of the SCORE program. They are helping me expand while staying true to the mission of Tiny Kitchen Bakeshop, so stay tuned!

The SCORE program is a national organization with 320 chapters in the United States, including one in Cleveland. They connect small business owners with mentors to help them identify areas for business growth, things to consider, as well as provide mentees with helpful resources.

How do you decide on the nonprofit to support?

Leah: So that is a process that I would love to see evolve, right now I do a Google search and look into how an organization tackles inclusivity, racism, poverty, and health disparities because these issues are issues that are important to me. However, I have opened up the organizations in which I support to customers, or recommendations from anyone that has an organization they’d like to be featured. My goal is to make this more of a collaborative effort within the TKB community.

What interested you in supporting The Literacy Cooperative?

Leah: Reading and literacy have been incredibly important in my personal and professional development. Having worked in healthcare for almost a decade, I understand how important literacy is, not just with education and employment, but as it relates to understanding health conditions and being able to thrive in society.

I love that The Literacy Cooperative talks about the whole-family approach because in healthcare we see that a lot. I enjoyed that you looked at it from a special angle that really gets to the heart of the issue. I think it meets a critical need at the foundation of society and it is a fundamental building block that needs to be addressed.

Since supporting The Literacy Cooperative, what new information have you learned?

Leah: Imagination Library was something that I had heard of from my sister who introduced it to me because her children are enrolled. It is such a magical program because it gets families involved, making reading a fun joint effort. It is easier for people to come to terms with these issues when there is a human component involved and I think Imagination Library and your contribution to it makes a difference.


Want to support? Make a purchase with Tiny Kitchen Bakeshop here.

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Updated Adult Literacy Data From NCES