Giving them skills and self-respect is now a government priority. Francis Beckett and Andrew Mourant talk to two of the people responsible for making it happen
British employers have 3.5 million people on their payrolls who are functionally illiterate. They must train them in basic skills - they cannot afford not to - but do not know how to identify them. Digby Jones, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, has a plan to help them find out.
"A lot of employers don't even know how many there are," he acknowledges.
But leaving them alone is not an option. The future for the economy lies in a skilled workforce because there won't be any unskilled jobs.
"Britain needs to be at the value-added and competitive end of the market.
We can't start trying to compete with India and Taiwan on price."
So how do employers go about finding out which of their staff lack basic skills such as literacy? People have every incentive to hide the problem.
They might fear losing their jobs. Even if an employer were to offer genuine and convincing reassurance on this point, how could they uncover these deficiencies without damaging people's self-esteem? It is certainly not going to be easy to reveal the problem if the employees don't want you to.
"People get very good at hiding their lack of basic skills. These are not stupid people," says Mr Jones. "They are often very intelligent people."
He believes that the way to start resolving their problems is often through information technology. They can get started on an IT course because there will be no shame in it.
"A man won't say in the pub that he's being taught to read but he will say that he's being taught IT." Once on an IT course, other basic skills needs will become obvious.
Finding and rectifying adult basic skills is a one-off job. Mr Jones knows it has to be done now, but wants to make sure it never has to be done again.
"In the next generation, all young people must leave school with basic skills and a positive attitude towards the world of work," he says.
"Business is quite happy to train on top of that, but it should not have to teach basic skills in the future."
To help ensure this, he wants to see the commercial world more involved in the education of 14 to 19-year-olds. Besides basic skills, it should be helping them to acquire skills needed at work, like teamworking, communication, and managing themselves and their time. Businesses should be more involved with schools and colleges, providing work experience, training to help pupils understand the world of work, and to help teachers understand the very different working environment of the profit-motivated businesses in which the majority of their pupils will have to work.
Not - he hastens to add - that he thinks British business has anything to be ashamed of in its training record. He claims business is spending pound;25 billion a year on workplace training. Bigger businesses especially are doing everything from basic skills to specialised training.
But there is room for more. There are still several businesses, especially smaller ones, which take the line that they pay their taxes, and so that is their contribution to training.
"The reason I wanted to be on the Learning and Skills Council is that I wanted to be sure that businesses of all sizes and in all sectors would know that training is not an option - it is something they have to do."
For Susan Pember, responsible for eradicating illiteracy from the workforce, it is people that matter, not government targets. "That's what my job is about: people, not numbers," says the director of the Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit. She does face an enormous challenge: imparting basic skills to 1.5 million adults by 2007. Moreover, learners will not be counted twice as in the past - those who embark on level 1 and stay on, moving up the scale, will not be included when totals are totted up. It will only be the new recruits.
Judged by statistics alone, all is going well: the target of 240,000 by October 2002 was exceeded by 60,000. But never mind the width, what about the quality? The Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA) has warned that more research is needed on the effectiveness of workplace education and basic skills training if adult numeracy and literacy levels are to rise.
Susan Pember agrees. But she claims things are in hand. "We've set up a new institute, the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy, working in a consortium with Sheffield and Lancaster universities," she says.
"Led by the Institute of Education, it's looking at how best to develop a learning programme for numeracy and literacy. We don't want to recreate the wheel, so we've been looking at international examples. The concept is to bring in and cascade good practice - a huge project, but very exciting."
The hope is that the centre will address other concerns expressed by the agency. These include the absence of a framework for harnessing lessons learned from successful projects; and the need for any curriculum to take a "rough guide" or "survival skills" approach based on real needs - in which workers themselves should have a role in designing.
Getting closer to employers is a priority. Susan Pember knows some will need convincing that involvement in training will benefit their bottom line. "LSC advisers will be going out to talk to them about their needs," she says.
"We will be working to buddy them up with local providers. We need to prove that those providers can give an experience relevant both to the employer and the employee."
Another statistic: 75 per cent of all learners being taught in a way that is considered "acceptable or above". But what of the remainder? The key to improvement, says Ms Pember, is teacher training. "We've trained 30,000 in how to deliver to the standards of the national curriculum. We want to make sure they have a continued professional development scheme."
Expect an announcement later this year about plans for an institute that will provide support for teachers; and another to ensure that each institution, workplace provider or local education authority has a proper plan showing how staff will be trained and supported.
"Staff are very motivated but many have never had access to training," says Ms Pember. "We've formalised the teacher training side so you can get a proper qualification at different levels - from a degree to a level 3, as instructor."
Meanwhile, the trawl continues for adults who find that literacy and numeracy are mountains to climb. How to do that has, in itself, become a preoccupation of Niace, the adult education body, and a growing arena of debate.
"We need to know what's best, " says Ms Pember. "There are examples where everything's been absolutely up front, and people have appreciated that. Or do you go about it more covertly?"
Here, emphatically, the issue is about people rather than numbers.