Adult literacy is a serious problem in the Canadian workplace, a consensus supported by a growing number of business leaders.
But not enough leaders have a good read on the big picture, nor do they understand the complexity, seriousness, and urgency of the issue.
That is the message being delivered by Tim O’Neill, chief economist and executive vice-president of the Bank of Montreal.
|Economist Tim O'Neill says literacy skills required in the workplace have changed in the last 15 years.|
O’Neill has been on a cross-country speaking tour sponsored by the ABC Canada Literacy Foundation, a national charitable organization committed to raising awareness about literacy.
O’Neill’s message is enlightening.
While most Canadians harbour the notion that adult literacy is confined to whether or not a person can read and write, it goes much further, he says.
“We are asking workers to use their skills in an increasingly sophisticated manner,” O’Neill told a Calgary Chamber of Commerce meeting this month. “We expect them to read more complicated information and communicate their understanding, be computer literate, and numerate as well.”
He explains that there are people who entered jobs 15 years ago with the required literacy skills, but who today might not meet the minimum literacy requirements. “The critical point is that the bar has been raised,” he says.
“And the trends suggest that workplace expectations will continue to grow.”
According to ABC Canada, 22 per cent of Canadians have serious trouble dealing with the printed word. Another 26 per cent can only deal with simple reading tasks. In Alberta, one in three adults has reading skills that limit their ability to deal with much of the printed material they encounter daily. One in seven adults are at the lowest point on the literacy scale.
In the workplace, it’s not just the people at the bottom who are a concern, says O’Neill. It can be a technician; a worker who has been promoted to a demanding position where there is a great deal of new, unfamiliar material; or it can be otherwise well-performing staff who are being trained for new skills.
“If you have a literacy challenge, your (the worker’s) path can be impeded.”
Research shows that literacy skills can be improved and that workplace initiatives work. The problem is that not nearly enough companies are working with employees, he says.
In Canada, only 31 per cent of companies are paying for formal training compared to more than 80 per cent in Britain and 75 per cent in Japan.
If we don’t address these issues, the problem becomes more acute, says O’Neill. He points to four trends that are affecting everyone in the workplace, and that make it imperative that literacy be addressed:
* A dramatic increase in the importance of information and communications technologies;
* Rising expectations of workers’ levels of skills and their ability to apply those skills.
* Increased frequency that people are, and will be, changing jobs.
* The demographic impact of baby boomers leaving the workforce.
“The reality is that, in this age, everyone is dependent on technology,” says O’Neill.
There is also no question that expectations are rising. As an example, he points to the bank teller of 20 years ago who was expected to help customers with simple transactions such as deposits and withdrawals. “Today, we want them, need them, to consider a client’s immediate and anticipated needs, to offer advice on a range of options and deal with those needs – whether it’s something like refinancing a mortgage or consolidating debt.”
Statistics also show that on average, Canadians will change jobs four to five times over their lifetime.
Invariably, those workers will find themselves in a new line of work where they have to be retrained or develop new skills, says O’Neill.
Also looming on the horizon is the demographic reality. The leading edge of the baby boomers has turned 55, and many are planning retirement, or cutting back on their work.
Fewer people are following the boomers into the workplace and if the patterns remain unchanged, the Conference Board of Canada forecasts an overall labour shortage of one million people by 2020.
“These kinds of figures are impossible to ignore,” says O’Neill. “With a looming shortage, we cannot afford people in the labour force who have literacy and numeracy challenges.”
As fundamental literacy requirements rise everywhere, the business community must shoulder its share of responsibility to ensure people have the fundamental skills to meet the expectations of employers and customers, he says. Provincial governments also share a large responsibility.
It can be done, believes O’Neill.
“What we’re talking about is adult life-long learning, and providing a more creative way that lifelong learning capacity is developed.”
O’Neill states emphatically that Canada’s productivity – and ultimately our standard of living – is linked to literacy in the workplace.
Research shows a clear connection between literacy and an individual’s earnings, he says. On average, each additional year of education boosts an individual’s salary by eight per cent. About one-third of that increase is directly tied to literacy skills.
Simple math shows that the more people with literacy skills, the more efficient and more productive the country becomes.
A crunch is coming, says O’Neill.
“Before that happens we have the opportunity to act on what we know.”
He hopes that more people will be able to read the writing on the wall.