Canadian organizations move to develop workplace literacy and numerical skills

The significance of basic skills has grown in profile recently as employers, workers and trainers struggle to respond to rapidly changing workplace needs.

Their importance was highlighted in the 1994 International Adult Literacy Survey and confirmed in the recently released Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey, two international surveys sponsored in part by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. These surveys demonstrated that:

•literacy and other basic skills fall along a continuum and are not skills that individuals either have or don’t have;

•they can be honed through practice; and

•they link directly to a number of features of economic and social success.

A 2002 Canadian Labour and Business Centre survey of managers and labour leaders, from both the private and public sectors, placed skills shortages as a top issue and skills upgrading as the means to respond to that priority. Yet, “inadequate literacy skills among current workers” was found at the bottom of a list of 39 challenges facing the economy and labour market.

This disconnect between the notion of skills upgrading and literacy skills is an interesting phenomenon, given recent international survey data that found more than three million Canadians aged 16 to 65 have problems dealing with printed materials. Bridging this disconnect is a critical workplace challenge.

Essential skills put on the agenda

International literacy surveys and the federal government’s literacy initiatives have put the issue of literacy and basic skills on the agenda of workplace stakeholders. One such initiative is the Essential Skills Research Project (ESRP), which set out to determine the nature and complexity of various essential skills as they relate to the National Occupation Classification (NOC).

The NOC was already being used to develop occupational standards, training curricula, and Red Seal apprenticeship exams — all of which influence training and learning on the job. Adding the nine essential skills — reading text, document use, numeracy, writing, oral communication, working with others, thinking skills, computer use and continuous learning — provided a fuller description of the range of skills required.

ESRP’s methodology for examining the use of skills in real life situations is based on best practices in the field of workplace literacy. These practices include interviewing key players in the organization, observing workers doing their jobs, and scanning the environment for information on the uses of literacy. Best practices also include workplace literacy curricula that are developed based on learners’ needs, and training programs that position literacy issues within an organizational context — as part of a response to changing technology or preparation for ISO 9000 certification, for example. This approach effectively avoids targeting individuals and encourages organizations to create conditions allowing for strong cultures of learning, thereby mitigating against a fear of self-identification.

These principles of adult education guided the development of the ESRP. For example, within the trades, essential skills became a method to understand what skills are needed to succeed at the various tests required. Armed with this information, adult educators and trades trainers can work with learners to ensure their success, and ultimately ensure they have a job and an income.

Other practitioners are able to better understand how all of the skills are required, not just the more typical skills of reading and writing, to be successful at home and at work. Essential skills can now be understood as explicit and therefore teachable.

For employers, the ESRP provides a method to examine job requirements and link these directly to skills statements rather than levels of education. Employers can use an essential skills profile to describe what the job actually involves. Employers and workers can clearly see the career paths within an organization based on essential as well as technical skills. Trainers can embed essential skills into technical training, a model that has been successfully used in apprenticeship and trades training. The notion of essential skills can also serve the cause of Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) with its emphasis on the demonstration of skills rather than credentials.

Initially, the ESRP produced valuable information for understanding the demand side of skills on a macro level. With time, however, many employers began asking for ways to measure the supply side — that is, the skills of the existing and potential workforce. This led to the development of assessment tools, most notably, the Bow Valley College’s Test of Workplace Essential Skills, also known as TOWES.

Promoting the importance of essential skills and the use of the profiles became a major focus of the federal government. Employers are being urged to adopt the concept of essential skills and to implement essential skills programs.

What critics are worried about

While many will welcome the increased attention on essential skills, this attention does not come without a price. The original focus on the requirements of jobs has shifted to a focus on the capacities of workers. Critics see essential skills as an assessment tool, used more often to keep people out of jobs and rarely to help develop a learning plan to keep people in their jobs. Assessment without training will not resolve the country’s skills issues — it will just leave those issues for some other employer to deal with.

Launching essential skills programs without understanding the context of the workplace is another liability. Not every challenge in a workplace is due to essential skills. Only a sound organizational assessment involving all the stakeholders can determine what the needs might be. Both management and labour have an interest and a stake in what happens in the workplace, and so must be involved in a collaborative way throughout the process. It is only through these holistic approaches that essential skills will remain a means and not an end.

Essential skills profiles are based on abstractions about how occupations in Canada are organized. As such, the profiles posted on Human Resources and Skills Development Canada’s website ( are useful at a macro level, but too generic to be used in everyday life. They need to be customized and put into a context in order to be effective.

For example, the profiles describe a fully competent worker, offering little information on the skills required at the entry level. Further, workers adapt their skills according to the environment in which they work and in response to their familiarity with the job. Thus, there is not one set of essential skills that describes across the board any given occupation. And it would be simplistic to think that workplaces can achieve overnight success as soon as essential skills programming is introduced.

This is why we must work towards embedding essential skills into a training culture that values lifelong learning and that sees the workplace as a venue for learning. Educators and employers that use the essential skills concept as wholly divorced from technical skills, or from skills acquired and honed outside the context of work, will not contribute to good adult education or the overall improvement in people’s literacy levels.

What can be done to overcome these issues? In the first instance, remember that essential skills are a tool that can assist in better understanding skills issues, but not the only tool. Secondly, understanding and assessing skills requirements, whether from the demand or the supply side, are not the same as actually responding to those requirements. Workplace education and training remains the ultimate method to improve skill levels. Finally, it’s important to understand the context of the organization, the need for collaboration and the other challenges preventing the development and use of strong essential skills.

Essential skills development is not a panacea. As with any intervention in a workplace, it must be introduced in a collaborative manner that respects stakeholders’ needs and that ultimately improves the skill levels of workers at work, at home and in their community.

Brigid Hayes is director, labour at the Canadian Labour and Business Centre, an Ottawa-based research forum focusing on labour market and skills issues. Brigid can be reached at (613) 234-0505 or [email protected].

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