The Importance of Literacy & Essential Skills

Why is literacy important?

Much research has been conducted about how literacy and essential skills impact employment and life outcomes. According to findings from international studies:

  • Skill gaps affect many adults. Nationally, almost half of adults have literacy and essential skills below the desired level (Level 3).
  • Adults with literacy and essential skill gaps may not recognize they have a problem. Many adults with low literacy and essential skills are able to read and write at a low level, find jobs and cope in mainstream society.  However, their skill gaps act as a substantial barrier to full and successful participation in all aspects of work and life.
  • High levels of education do not guarantee high levels skill. The link between literacy and educational attainment is not as clear as once imagined. For example, 22% of university graduates have low literacy and essential skills. Many high-school graduates have literacy gaps that make them less likely to succeed in further education and in their transition to the labour market.
  • Immigrants are more likely to have literacy and essential skill gaps compared to Canadian born individuals. Over 60% of new and established immigrants have literacy and essential skills below Level 3.  In addition, the literacy and essential skills of immigrants are often lower than their educational credentials would suggest. This may be in part due to second language acquisition but also from gaps in their native language.
  • In comparison to other countries, Canada has a larger than average disparity in skill levels between its lowest and highest skilled citizens. On the surface, Canadians have comparable average skills to other developed nations.  However, this paints a misleading picture because Canada has a larger proportion of its population at the highest and lowest levels of literacy when compared with other countries.  This further disadvantages those at the low end of the skills spectrum and has a negative impact on GDP.
  • Literacy is strongly correlated with life chances and use of opportunities. Employability, earnings potential, and life-long learning are strongly tied to literacy and essential skills. Individuals with desired (Level 3) levels of skills are unemployed for shorter periods of time and are more likely to have higher incomes.
  • There is little demand in Canada for workers with skills below Level 3. Almost all occupations in Canada require workers with skills at Level 3.  Influences such as globalization and rapid occupational changes brought on by advancements in technology have necessitated a highly skilled workforce.  Jobs that traditionally required little education and skill are increasingly impacted by technologies and regulatory requirements; all Canadian workers are now required to find and use complex information accurately and efficiently.
  • Literacy and essential skills are tied workplace success. Weak skills make it difficult for individuals to learn new tasks and advance their careers. Individuals with skill gaps are much more likely to experience safety incidents at work and may struggle to adapt to workplace change. Productivity and efficiency in the workplace are negatively impacted by skill gaps in the workforce.
  • Literacy and essential skills are maintained through regular use. We lose skills unless we continually apply them and engage in continuous learning. This learning can take place through formal channels, or through informal learning opportunities in the workplace and daily life.
  • Overall literacy levels of the Canadian population have remained static. Ten years after the original IALS was completed, a follow-up study International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS) measured the same prose, document and quantitative variables as the original survey and compared proficiency results over a period of time. Overall, there was little appreciable increase in literacy performance between 1994 and 2003.  In addition, recently released results from the 2012 Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) found that the percentage of low skilled individuals remains relatively unchanged at 49% of the population.

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