At the Polaroid Corp., 200 assembly line workers take "reading labs" and "math tutorials" every year because the company "didn't want to have to work around people" as its technology advances. At Washington Gas Light Co., 49 field workers study twice weekly for 24 weeks, a quarter of that on their own time, to prevent being passed over for promotions.

Everywhere, the word is jobs, and 23 million Americans who are functionally illiterate want better ones, just like everyone else. But the society appears to be moving faster than they are.

"Every year the skills required to succeed in today's world are notched higher," Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell recently told Congress. "The U.S. Labor Department estimates that up to 75 percent of [the unemployed] lack the basic skills of communication, personal relations, motivation, self-confidence, reading and computing that would enable employers to train them for the jobs that will open up in the next few years."

As more robots and computers take over semiskilled and unskilled jobs, doing the work traditionally done by nonreaders, many businesses have quietly set up remedial reading classes for their nonreading employes.

Although the armed forces no longer accept nonreaders, the nuclear vigil has required expanded remedial reading and math courses for a record number of recruits who read just barely above the fifth-grade level.

The armed forces had 220,000 people in remedial math and reading courses last year, focusing on the words and computation needed in the nuclear era. In 1979 the figure was 166,000.

It is not that the recruits are worse, according to Thomas G. Sticht, American University education professor, but that the technology is more demanding. "Just to be a cook requires a seventh-grade reading ability," he said. Meanwhile, unemployed semiliterate adults must compete with hundreds of thousands of immigrants and recent school dropouts for the remaining low-skill jobs.

Community literacy programs have long waiting lists, but they are usually as poor as their students and cannot expand to meet the need.

"On days when I'm depressed I say we're not even keeping up" with the influx of nonreaders, said Paul Delker, director of the federal Adult Basic Education program that teaches some reading to 2.2 million adults each year.

He estimated that 850,000 youngsters drop out of high school and 150,000 are "pushouts" every year, receiving diplomas although they cannot read, write, calculate or do much else very well.

That is less than 8 percent of the nation's 12.8 million public high school students, but it is 20 times the size of the largest nongovernment program dealing with nonreaders, Laubach Literacy Action in Syracuse, N.Y.

Some 100,000 refugees enter the United States annually, along with 400,000 legal immigrants, and illegal immigrants total at least 500,000 or maybe a million.

Although some of these people are literate English-speakers, many more are not even literate in their own languages.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement runs the only government program that teaches English literacy to new arrivals. It reimburses states for welfare payments, medical care and "social services" provided to the individually sponsored refugees, including language training and job referral. But last year social services took just $57 million of a $669 million budget, according to spokesman Oliver Cromwell.

Nothing similar is provided for nonrefugee immigrants. Instead, they rely on friends and pocket dictionaries, television soap operas and a few community literacy programs to begin learning English. They have one advantage over native U.S. nonreaders: they are not embarrassed at having to ask for the help they need to work.

Hassan R., 43, had been an embassy chauffeur in Washington for seven years without learning to read English or speak much beyond survival pidgin. Completely unschooled in his native Sudan, he relied on Arab-speaking friends for nearly everything. He rode with them to memorize local streets, and took an oral version of the driver's license test that is available for the asking. But he had never left the city because he couldn't read the highway exit signs.

Then he lost his job. To learn English, he and his wife tried an ABE program at a local school, "but it was 35 people, all of them Spanish-speaking. They at least knew the alphabet," said his wife, Madiha. "We went two weeks and didn't learn anything."

The couple enrolled at a Washington basic literacy program where they and four other immigrants learn the words of phone books, maps, menus, bills and checkbooks. "Now I drive to King's Dominion by myself," Hassan said proudly, referring to a popular amusement park. "Also Richmond, Atlantic City, anywhere!"

About 20 percent of ABE students are Hispanics. Julia B., 51, arrived from Brazil 11 years ago and has taken English lessons off and on since. "At first, when I went to get groceries I would take a little dictionary, or bring a bean or some rice to show them what I wanted," she said. "No, I wasn't embarrassed. How else can you learn?"

Working now as a companion to elderly invalids, she is in the last stages at a Fairfax County ABE course preparing for the high school equivalency diploma she needs to take the exam to resume her trade as a licensed practical nurse. There are 2,900 ABE testing centers nationwide, and literacy teachers say that students with such definite goals make the most progress.

"They come in with very specific problems: 'My office has been automated and I can't read the manuals,' " said Jean Lowe, ABE coordinator in Fairfax County. "We had a man last year who was an air conditioner repairman . . . his teacher is still agonizing about compressors, but he knew what those words meant in the real world."

The Polaroid Corp. has been offering "reading labs" and "math tutorials" to its nonreading employes since 1970. "They weren't necessarily a problem. It was a question of expectation," said Don Fronzaglia, director of human resources at the company headquarters in Cambridge, Mass. "We didn't want to have to work around them. We wanted a more productive work force."

Of the firm's 12,000 employes, about 200 volunteer to take the courses annually, half on their own time. "For some of these people the ability to read the company newspaper is a dramatic event in their lives," Fronzaglia said. The firm's cost is "very small compared to the return" in fewer assembly line errors and equipment damage, lower accident and absenteeism rates, he said.

The Job Corps, started in 1965, gives basic literacy and job training to 40,000 teen-agers at any one time, most of them black urban dropouts. "The hard part is finding vocationally oriented reading material," said Joseph Hines, assistant to the program director. "The kids are really turned off by the little bunnies and puppies in the beginner's stuff."

The Job Corps, with a $585 million budget last year, claims a 90 percent success rate in placing its alumni in jobs, back in school or the armed forces. But its live-in, 24-hour approach that provides "absolutely critical" personal counseling and support, Hines said, would not work for most adult nonreaders with jobs and families.

The program at Washington Gas Light was sparked by the wives of employes who were being passed over for promotion, said company spokesman Paul Young. "The older ones with problems reading were running into dead ends in their jobs," he said.

In a 24-week program, 23 pipe layers, welders and truck drivers advanced their reading 1.7 years each, twice the expected average, and 25 more are studying now. "We hope that now the ice is broken others will be more willing to participate," Young said.

The Department of Education has hosted two roundtable discussions among literacy experts on the chances for increasing such business involvement in the problem. Chaired by Delker, the group includes Sticht and representatives of Polaroid and some community groups as well as from the office of Barbara Bush, wife of Vice President Bush. "The concept is a national institute of some sort to be a clearinghouse for information, teacher training, that sort of thing," Sticht said.

Other sources called it a desperate effort to find some way of blocking proposed administration changes that would combine vocational education and adult education grant programs next year and cut the funding for both.

There are other national efforts. Led by the Chicago-based American Library Association, nine groups in the field have formed a Coalition for Literacy to launch a $20 million nationwide advertising campaign that would make adult illiteracy as well-known a problem as forest fires.

Aroused by radio, TV, newspaper ads and billboards beginning in early 1984, according to the plan, nonreaders would call toll-free numbers to ask for help, donors would call with money and volunteers would offer their time. The coalition would refer them all to appropriate local programs, offering expert advice and workshops for others who want to start new operations.

"We're saying the solution lies in more literacy programs. It's a national thing but the impact has to be local," said coalition coordinator Jean Coleman, director of ALA's outreach services. But after a year of trying, the group has not been able to raise the $1.7 million it needs to get going.

Its biggest problem, some activists say, is getting the full attention of nine groups with different priorities. This also plagued Right to Read, the national assault on illiteracy launched with much fanfare by the Nixon administration in 1970. Gilbert B. Schiffman resigned after 16 months as Right to Read director in 1978, saying the program was a failure.

"People from the Navy would tell me they weren't getting enough trained people. The auto industry was saying there would be no way they could hire nonreaders in a few years. I thought I could use the program as a catalyst to bring all the programs together," he said.

Instead, the agencies worked at cross purposes, continued Schiffman, now education professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Teacher corps, special education, adult education, Job Corps, Head Start, Title I and a dozen other programs "were spending millions but with no cohesiveness," he said. "I was so naive."

Like many others, he is discouraged about the future for the nation's functional illiterates. "We're going to get a larger and larger number of people like this," he said. "In the next three or four years it'll be a serious national problem. In fact, it may get to the point where things just blow up . . . people are expecting jobs and they aren't going to be there for anyone without basic literacy competence."