The pressure to develop a highly literate workforce has intensified in recent years as the skills demanded by employers become increasingly complex. However, employers tend to enhance the skills of those who are already highly literate and leave behind a substantial proportion of workers who are only marginally literate. So although the economy demands increasing numbers of highly skilled workers, present practices may well be limiting economic growth and productivity. Improving the abilities Of adults with poor literacy skills may present the biggest human resource challenge of the next decade.
This article briefly profiles the significant minority of Canadian workers who possess only Level 1 or 2 literacy skills, as determined by the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) (see Data source and definitions). Although no one country is "better" than another in an absolute sense - they differ in their demographic composition, educational organization, social institutions and employment opportunities - useful questions may be raised by studying the literacy skills of foreign workforces. Therefore, this article also looks at workers in the United States, our largest trading partner and primary competitor, and Germany, the principal economic power in Europe.
What does marginal literacy mean for workers?
Workers with only Level 1 or 2 literacy skills - workers "at risk" have quite limited capabilities. In practical terms, their general reading abilities (prose literacy) are restricted to such tasks as identifying dosage instructions on a medicine bottle (Level 1) or answering a simple question about plants based on a brief article about gardening (Level 2). However, they have difficulty summarizing instructions on making sure a bicycle seat is in the proper position for the rider; or reading four movie reviews and identifying which movie was considered the worst, in the absence of a ratings device such as points or stars. These are Level 3 prose tasks.
Workers at risk also exhibit weak skills in working with the types of forms, charts, tables and text they might encounter in the workplace (document literacy). From a chart showing the percentage of teachers who are female in different- European countries, they are able to identify the percentage of teachers in Greece who are women (Level 1); or from two charts containing data about fireworks, they are able to select the year in which the fewest people were injured in fireworks accidents (Level 2). However, they are unlikely to succeed at Level 3 document literacy tasks, such as using a bus schedule to find out what time the last bus leaves a particular stop on Saturday night.
Workers with marginal literacy skills also have a limited ability to work with numbers (quantitative literacy). They can complete an order form when the numbers to be added together are already provided (Level 1), or calculate the difference between the maximum daytime temperatures in Bangkok and Seoul using information printed in a table in the newspaper (Level 2). They are not usually able to successfully complete quantitative tasks of Level 3 difficulty; for example, they are unable to compare two bar charts - one showing the amount of energy produced by selected countries, the other, the amount of energy consumed - and calculate how much more energy Canada produced than it consumed, or estimate the total amount of energy that was consumed by Canada, the United States and. Mexico combined.
Compounding the difficulties marginally literate workers likely face in remaining employable are their attitudes toward literacy. They read less, and watch television more, than people with high-level literacy skills, thereby risking further deterioration of their abilities. Moreover, they do not recognize (or acknowledge) that they are at risk: about half the workers with Level 1 abilities, and over three-quarters of those with Level 2, rate their reading, writing and numeracy skills as good to excellent. Given this belief, it is not surprising that the great majority of marginally literate adults do not consider their job opportunities to be limited by their poor literacy skills. 1
Over one-third of Canadian workers have weak literacy skills
Over one-third of the workers in Canada (36%) possess marginal literacy skills. This proportion is consistent across all three types of literacy - prose, document and quantitative. Although most workers "at risk" function at Level 2 literacy, about one in three operate at Level I (Chart A).
In the United States, over 40% of workers have only Level 1 or 2 skills, regardless of the type of literacy being measured. Although this proportion is slightly higher than in Canada, the split between Levels I and 2 is similar; that is, a little more than one-third of American workers with marginal literacy function at the lowest level.
Susan Crompton was with the Labor and House hold Surveys Analysis Division. She is currently on assignment and can be reached at (613) 951-0178.