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50 per cent of Canadians have a literacy problem: Expert

Peter Caulfield
50 per cent of Canadians have a literacy problem: Expert
CANADA WEST FOUNDATION - Janet Lane, the director of Canada West Foundation's Human Capital Centre in Calgary, says being literate is "about being able to understand and use what you have read to solve a range of real-world problems in daily life and work.”

The next time you’re walking through your office or job site, fix your gaze on one other person.

The chances are good that one of you can’t read well enough to do your job.

Expressed in more academic terms, close to 50 per cent of Canadian adults have a literacy problem.

While virtually everyone can read, almost half of the country’s working-age population need to improve their ability to read, and to understand and use, what they’ve read if they’re going to meet the demands of life and work.

“Being literate isn’t about whether or not you can read,” said Janet Lane, director of the Canada West Foundation’s Human Capital Centre in Calgary. “It’s about being able to understand and use what you have read to solve a range of real-world problems in daily life and work.”

Lane is co-author of Literacy Lost/ Canada’s Basic Skills Shortfall, published by the Canada West Foundation (CWF) in 2018.

In it she and T. Scott Murray show how the new Canadian workplace requires employees to keep learning through their working lives. 

Lane says most people can read and apply what they’ve read if the context is familiar.

“Roughly half of those between 16 and 65, however, can’t use what they’ve read to solve problems if the content is new and the context unfamiliar,” she said.

This is problematic, because almost all of the jobs that have been created since 1994 require employees to apply what they read in unfamiliar documents to solve a range of problems, many of which require creative and immediate solutions. 

Vancouver-based SkillPlan has been providing essential skills training for Canadian building trade unions and associated union contractors since 1991.  

CEO Kyle Downie says Employment and Social Development Canada has identified and developed what are the nine Essential Skills (reading, document use, numeracy, writing, oral communication, working with others, thinking, digital technology and continuous learning.) These Essential Skills are the skills that people need for work, learning and life. These skills are used in every job and at different levels of complexity. They provide the foundation for learning all other skills and enable people to evolve with their jobs, succeed in training and adapt to workplace change.

“Many construction workers – between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of them – struggle with essential skills, such as reading documents at work,” said Downie.  “These problems are compounded on larger construction projects, because they require so many workers, many of whom are new or inexperienced.”

Workplaces are changing quickly. Machines or algorithms are replacing some tasks, and new and changing jobs require additional technical skills.

To keep pace with these changes in current and future jobs, the ability to keep learning is the most important basic skill of any job.

And because literacy is the most important learning-to-learn skill, Canada’s workforce requires high levels of literacy.

Without these skills, many Canadians will not be able to keep their jobs – or find new ones – and a growing number of employers will not be able to find workers with the skills they need.

“Compared to other workplace challenges in Canada, I can’t think of anything more important than deficient workplace literacy,” said Lane.

Many employers don’t recognize how much workplace literacy deficiency can cost to them.

“It has a direct impact on their bottom line,” said Lane. “Not being able to understand what you’re reading can lead to expensive do-overs that could have been avoided, or accidents that could have been prevented if the safety manual had been followed.”

Employers need to get involved in order to remedy the situation.

“They should ensure literacy is embedded in the rest of their training,” she said. “Fortunately, to obtain the literacy skills someone needs, they don’t need to go back to school for two years. The learning period can be fairly brief, as little as three months.”

Decoda Literacy Solutions in Vancouver, the only literacy organization in B.C., is a non-profit organization providing resources, training and funding to support community-based literacy programs and initiatives in over 400 communities across the province.

“Our training is provided through webinars and through our biannual provincial literacy conference, which took place in November 2019 in Richmond,” said executive director Margaret Sutherland. “We also have a lending library with a good selection of resources on literacy and learning that are free for anyone in B.C. to borrow.”

Sutherland says Decoda is undertaking a three-year research project that is looking at the training needs of displaced workers, such as laid off B.C. sawmill workers.

“We are in the first year of the project, so we’re just beginning to get an idea of the lay of the land,” said Sutherland. “Some displaced workers might make the transition to the BC construction industry, which needs workers.”



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