CALGARY, December 10, 2018 – STEM skills are important, but improving the basic skills of Canada’s workforce would allow more people to find new ways to navigate the changing nature of the workforce – and add billions of dollars to the economy each year at the same time, according to a new report from the Canada West Foundation.

Many people in the workforce can’t apply what they have read in new ways or unfamiliar situations – and the problem is getting worse, according to Literacy Lost: Canada’s basic skills shortfall.

The report shows that more than 40 per cent of Canada’s workforce doesn’t have the literacy skills to do increasingly complex jobs well, according to international assessments. People can read, but not well enough to easily learn new skills or solve new problems. Without this ability, Canadian workers won’t be able to keep their jobs – or find new ones; employers, meanwhile, won’t be able to find workers with the skills they need to remain competitive in a rapidly changing economy.

The problem is compounded by rapidly changing workplaces, where machines are replacing some work, while other new and changing jobs require using advanced technical skills in cognitively challenging ways. Workers need higher literacy levels to keep pace – but Canada’s workforce is falling behind, the report found. Meanwhile, literacy levels of younger generations are going down overall despite having spending more time in school. People also tend to lose skills as they age, when those skills become rusty through lack of use.

Analysis of international adult skills data and GDP per capita and labour productivity performance indicators found that boosting literacy skills in the workforce by an average of one per cent would in time inject $54 billion per year, every year (through a three per cent boost to GDP), into the Canadian economy, and lead to a five per cent increase in labour productivity. People most at risk of losing their jobs to automation are those who are employed in low-skilled jobs; upgrading their skills makes them more employable in new, high-skilled jobs, the report notes.

Solutions to Canada’s literacy problem include efforts to:

• Improve the literacy skills of graduates of K-12 and post-secondary programs.
• Investigate the market for skills and build and implement competency frameworks
• Embed literacy in all workforce education and training initiatives for all working aged adults
• Ward off worker skill loss by increasing the knowledge and skill intensity of jobs, using reliable tools to assess skills of job applicants and investing in literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skill upgrading
• Transform the federally funded Labour Market Programs offered in the provinces and territories
• Mandate the new Future Skills Centre to include basic cognitive skills in its research program

On average, Canada’s workforce is well educated, but many people are poorly equipped to adapt to the realities of the changing workplace. It’s no wonder that employers are complaining that they can’t find people with adequate basic skills – even new graduates may not have them.”

Janet Lane, director of the Human Capital Centre and report co-author

Employers need to be part of the solution. They will see a boost to their bottom line if they increase the basic skills of their workers – and then change their work processes and organization to make sure those skills are put to use.”

– Scott Murray, Principal, DataAngel and report co-author