By Gary Mar and Janet Lane
Published in the Calgary Herald

May 18, 2023

There was a time when a young Albertan without a high school diploma could earn good money, but those days are long gone.

Over the last decade, Alberta’s jobs have changed – a lot. As the economy has diversified and technology has become part of almost every job, a high school diploma is usually the minimum required. And the learning that enables people to do their jobs well and be more productive doesn’t usually end with high school. All that further learning – post-secondary education, job training and on-the-job onboarding, upskilling and reskilling – involves reading.

This is because first we learn to read, then we read to learn.

People who read easily and can understand and apply what they read to solve problems in life and work have good literacy skills. And they learn faster. For people who can’t read well, life is harder, learning takes longer and because of the rapidly changing workplace, even jobs they’ve done for years can become more difficult to do.

Employers have always paid more for people with higher literacy skills. Research has shown that workers at the highest literacy level also receive larger wage increases – up to 15 times higher than those with the literacy lowest levels.

People with lower literacy skills don’t just earn less. On average, they are more likely to work less productively, be involved in workplace accidents, suffer poor health, be absent, increase the need for do-overs and are less adaptable to change. The productivity gains that come from ensuring workers have the literacy skills to think critically and solve problems quickly are huge. Better readers make more productive workers.

In fact, just a one per cent increase in a population’s average literacy scores will, if put to good use, eventually lead to a five per cent increase in productivity and a three per cent rise in GDP. At current rates that’s about $10 billion for Alberta.

A recently released Canada West Foundation paper discusses the problem that faces many of Alberta’s employers. Because many workforce issues are related to literacy, one of our recommendations is that employers embed literacy skills into their onboarding and any upskilling and reskilling that they offer.

Literacy is gained through quality instruction and practice over a lifetime. It is lost through lack of practice and opportunities for growth. Over the last few years, and especially during the pandemic, screen time replaced many of the hours that were spent reading – for information, for learning and for pleasure. Adults who are also employees may have lost some of their literacy skills if they haven’t been using them. Unfortunately, the next generation of workers may also not have the level of literacy skills required for today’s rapidly changing workplaces either.

While Alberta’s 15-year-old students do well on the international PISA Reading Test, their average scores declined more than those of their OECD peers over the last two decades. And worse, in 2018, 25 per cent of Canada’s test takers said that reading was a waste of time. Half of them said they only read when they have to. This does not bode well for Canada’s literacy levels.

Teenagers need encouragement at home and school as well as in the community to make reading part of their lives. If they are going to read it will only be if they have access to good quality, interesting and relevant reading materials.

But the single most important thing Alberta as a society can do to ensure that future generations have the literacy skills to thrive in life, learning and work is to support parents and carers of young children to help develop their language and literacy skills.

Good literacy skills make solving the problems of everyday life easier. They make learning new skills easier. And better readers are more productive workers. This long weekend, take a step toward making life, learning and work easier. Pick up a book and read.

Gary Mar is President and CEO of the Canada West Foundation. Jane Lane is Director of the Centre for Human Capital at the Canada West Foundation.

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