12 million adults have low literacy skills

Employers in unique position to increase literacy
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/07/2008

Almost one-half of Canadian adults and 42 per cent of working-age Canadians are below the internationally accepted literacy standard for coping in a modern society, according to a report from the Canadian Council on Learning.

The proportion of Canadians with poor literacy skills is expected to remain at about 48 per cent for the next two decades as the council projects the number of Canadians with low levels of literacy will reach 15 million by 2031 — an increase of more than three million.

“We’re not talking about illiteracy, we’re talking about low levels of literacy. The reality is that there are very few people in Canada who can’t read or write, but there are many Canadians who don’t have the fluid, automatic reading skills to be able to interpret new texts or unfamiliar situations,” said Nadine Valk, senior program specialist at the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) in Ottawa.

The council measures literacy on a scale of zero to five, where three is the literacy level a person needs to participate to his full potential. A higher score means an individual is able to quickly and automatically process information, said Valk.

“Somebody at level two literacy might have adequate print skills, adequate comprehension skills, adequate vocabulary,” she said. “They probably do very well in their jobs, in their life, especially if they are encountering things that are familiar to them. It’s as soon as you put them into an unfamiliar situation that it’s much more difficult.”

With quickly changing technology and a faster paced work environment, higher levels of literacy will help the economy because more people will be able to participate, especially in knowledge-based positions, said Valk.

“There’s a pretty clear link between literacy and the success in the economy,” she said.

Literacy also has an effect on society at large. Low literacy is linked to poor health outcomes and increased workplace accidents, said Valk. People with higher literacy also communicate better, take on new challenges and adapt to change more quickly.

With 42 per cent of working-age Canadians struggling with literacy, employers are in a unique position to foster literacy and life-long learning.

“As employers we have to be thinking about how do we get the best out of people and how do we engage them and how do we make sure that learning is a part of their lives. How do we keep them all reading and thinking and using their math skills so we maintain this higher skilled workforce,” said Margaret Eaton, president of ABC Canada Literacy Foundation, a national literacy charity in Toronto.

About a decade ago, Hamilton, Ont.-based steel manufacturer Dofasco implemented some process changes but employees weren’t picking them up. Management began to wonder if employees didn’t understand the materials explaining the new processes, said Eaton.

“Their hourly employees were not really able to comprehend what they were reading. It wasn’t that they were entirely without reading skills, but they needed some higher level comprehension skills to actually take in what they were being given to read and to act on it,” she said.

To help these workers, Dofasco implemented basic English and computer literacy programs. Over the years, the steel producer has expanded this essential skills program to include advanced computer courses, language study and clear writing (such as memo writing). The classes run from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and employees are paid for one of the two hours.

Having higher levels of literacy helps employees advance at work, said Jill Cressy, an administrative assistant in Dofasco’s training and development department.

“We’ve had a few (participants) move into the lower team leader level because of their progress and their work knowledge,” she said.

Calling the program a “literacy” initiative can scare off employees because they feel ashamed, so Eaton suggests incorporating literacy with other training. This could be done during health and safety training, computer training or process-specific training.

The main reason for the high rate of low literacy levels, and why they’ll stay high over the next few decades, is the aging population. As people age, their skills begin to decline if they’re not using them, said Valk.

“There is skills loss as you age,” she said. “If you’re not actively using your literacy skills, you lose them over time.”

With birth rates dropping and the majority of the population getting much older, there aren’t enough highly educated young people to keep up with the increasing number of seniors.

Canada’s, and particularly Ontario’s, reliance on lower skilled jobs hasn’t helped the situation, said Eaton.

“If your job didn’t require a higher level of literacy skills, like a lot of jobs in manufacturing, then you can actually lose skills over time,” she said. “We’ve turned some people into robots because the jobs we’ve offered just aren’t challenging people.”

While new Canadians score poorly on literacy tests, most of them are more highly educated than native-born Canadians and their low scores are probably the result of the tests only being offered in English and French, said Valk.

“There needs to be some assessment as to whether or not they have a literacy issue or whether or not it’s really just a language issue and they need to improve their English or French language skills,” she said.

Recently the federal government has given money to the provinces to create services to improve workplace literacy and ABC Canada would like to see the provinces put that money to good use. But the federal government still has a role to play as well, said Eaton.

“We feel the federal government can be doing more to improve access to workplace literacy programs. We’ve started to investigate the possibility of a workplace literacy or workplace learning tax credit at the federal level,” she said.

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