Lifelong learning, literacy key to Canada’s success: Studies

Basic skills training is also important
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/20/2010

Canada continues to fall behind in key areas of learning but awareness around the importance of literacy and the workplace is strong, according to two Canadian reports.

Learning is “our greatest safeguard against an uncertain future as we face the challenges of increased globalization, including rapid advancements in new technologies and demand for innovation and higher productivity,” said the report Taking Stock of Lifelong Learning by the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL).

Like other countries, Canada needs to develop a co-ordinated approach to education and lifelong learning or it may see a national knowledge disadvantage, according to the report. While Canada has had great success and done well in international comparisons when it comes to education, other countries are making advances and putting more efforts into lifelong learning, said Erin Mills, senior research analyst at CCL.

“Lifelong learning is a continuous learning journey, it doesn’t end after formal school years,” she said. “People learn at different stages of life at different times, and success and failure at different stages can impact the next stage of life.

“(Other countries are) recognizing those critical intersections; they’re putting more emphasis on the stages and connections between the life stages and the lifelong learning journey. They’re actually catching up to Canada.”

Lifelong learning is an imperative and the demand is only going to intensify as we go forward, said Craig Alexander, senior vice-president and chief economist at TD Bank Financial Group.

“We are going to continue to have an increasingly knowledge-based economy, we’re seeing a greater degree of sophistication in the output of workers and this is going to continue to put pressure on the labour force,” he said.

There is less job security today and workers are going to be pressured to develop new skills and new ways of doing things. And both formal and informal learning should play a part, said Alexander.

“Businesses are going to have to facilitate that process,” he said.

They also need to get better at valuing basic skills, he said. They are very comfortable with specific skills training, such as for new software, but aren’t inclined to support staff with basic writing or numeracy skills training.

But it’s tough for employers as many people are disengaged or unmotivated because they don’t think they need the learning or are more concerned about work-life balance.

“It could be as simple as giving the employee some flexibility during their workday so they can take the training and do their job and manage family obligations,” said Alexander.

“You really need to have a supportive environment,” said Mills. “We need to increase the premium on lifelong learning.”

And rates of adult participation have stagnated while investments in work-related training are declining, according to CCL’s report, while those who most need learning opportunities are the least likely to obtain them.

“Although Canada has among the world’s most educated population, nearly half of adults in this country lack the prose-literacy skills needed to cope with the demands of a global economy,” stated the report.

The skills requirements for jobs are rising, such as those for a truck driver or a customer service person, and more low-skills jobs are disappearing so people need to keep improving their skills as they go along, said Margaret Eaton, president of ABC Life Literacy Canada.

But awareness around the importance of literacy is strong. Nine in 10 Canadians agree “improving the literacy levels of Canadians is key to improving the country’s economy,” according to a survey of 1,021 adults by ABC Life Literacy Canada. And 95 per cent said literacy training is critical to improving job prospects for Canadians.

“People are really seeing the importance of literacy skills, reading, writing and math, to their own job success and… that’s important to our nation’s success as well,” said Eaton.

The lower literacy levels can’t be blamed entirely on our education system, said Eaton, as test scores are improving over time. There are many reasons why people struggle with literacy, such as undiagnosed learning disabilities, dropping out of school early to take a job or newcomers who don’t speak English or French as a first language.

Canada has a reputation as a modern, industrialized economy with a well-developed education system, a skilled workforce and a high standard of living, said Alexander. But international studies show almost five in 10 don’t have literacy skills at a level desirable for a modern, knowledge-based economy. And six in 10 lack the desired numeracy levels.

“Literacy is, ultimately, the great enabler,” he said.

People with higher numeracy and literacy skills are more likely to go on and do skills training after their formal schooling years, they tend to have lower unemployment and if they are unemployed, it’s for a shorter duration of time, said Alexander.

Encouragingly, 72 per cent of working Canadians said they “initiate upgrading their skills and literacy levels in the workplace,” found the ABC study. However, 78 per cent of university graduates and those with some post-secondary education (80 per cent) agree they initiate this type of training in their place of work, while fewer working Canadians with a high-school diploma (67 per cent) or no diploma (58 per cent) do the same.

“We really want employers to take a look at what are the literacy levels and needs of staff, at lower levels,” said Eaton. “Is there training those individuals need and would that help boost productivity and competitiveness?”

More employers realize they have to deal with lower literacy levels, particularly in places with severe labour shortages, such as the North, she said.

“Diamond mines have been really aggressive about training the Aboriginal population, which wasn’t well-served by the education system,” she said. “As we move out of the recession, we are going to see labour shortages and it’s going to be tougher to get the person coming through the door that has all the skills you want, so it will be more and more up to the employer to try and fill the gap.”

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