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Supporting Literacy Would Be the Best Investment Jim Flaherty Could Make

03/19/2013 12:31 EDT | Updated 05/19/2013 05:12 EDT
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In the lead up to the federal government's 2013 budget there has been a lot of talk about infrastructure.

There are those concerned about potential negative economic consequences as the federal stimulus plan winds down, and those who have been campaigning for years about the need for a comprehensive long-term infrastructure renewal program in Canada. Opposition parties and municipalities have been particularly vocal in calling for national leadership on (and stable long-term funding for) infrastructure.

The Canadian Literacy and Learning Network, as a national voice for Literacy and Essential Skills (L/ES), isn't really trying to wade into the infrastructure debate here. But what we have noticed is that all the talk about physical infrastructure seems to be overshadowing the need to address our human infrastructure crisis.

Crisis isn't too strong a word, and we're not the only one using it. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce lists Canada's skills crisis as the first item on its "Top 10 Barriers to Competitiveness" and calls the growing skills shortfall a serious threat to Canada's prosperity.

Canada's labour market is experiencing increasing skills shortages at one end of the spectrum and rising chronic unemployment at the other. Factor in the demographic shift as the baby boom generation retires and the projections show fewer replacement workers in high-demand fields and growing pressure on the health care services that require a skilled workforce.

Canada needs a concerted effort to address the skills crisis. Governments, the private sector, educators and the organizations serving the population groups under-represented in the labour force all have a role to play in building effective solutions. Strategic investments will be needed to prepare people to succeed when they enter a skills-training program.

Finance Minister Flaherty has said that his economic priorities include immigration policies designed to attract skilled workers. Bringing in more skilled immigrants to address these gaps would have significant costs, and it will certainly not be enough to close the gaps in the skilled trades as workers retire over the next 20 years. In addition, many immigrants face language barriers that impact their participation in the labour force. Bringing in more immigrants will increase the need for language assessment and training. This must be considered in any plan to increase immigration.

Another of Minister Flaherty's stated priorities is skills-training policies to match people's skills with the jobs in the workforce. There will almost certainly be broad accord among industry, labour and educators in welcoming an enhanced federal focus on skills development. However, from an L/ES perspective, we have to draw attention to the barriers that prevent people from entering or successfully completing skills-training programs.

There are about nine million Canadian adults who may not have the basic skills needed to succeed in advanced skills training programs. Many of these people could benefit from "upskilling" -- programs aimed at increasing their proficiency in accessing information, thinking critically, writing clearly, performing numeric calculations and communicating effectively.

The nine million figure is extrapolated from the 43% of Canadian adults surveyed who scored at the lowest two levels of the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) scale. The IALS scale has five levels; Level 3 is internationally recognized as the minimum requirement for a person to cope adequately with the demands of everyday life and work in an advanced society. (New survey data scheduled for release in the fall may alter this picture.)

Training programs often assume that learners are starting with Level 3 Literacy and Essential Skills; those who are not yet at this level may not qualify for training, or they will struggle against long odds to succeed. To successfully move people into skilled jobs, the L/ES levels of training candidates should be appropriately assessed and L/ES upskilling opportunities should be offered, either prior to training or embedded in the training programs themselves, whether these programs are offered through workplaces, the college system, apprenticeships or other avenues.

Canada's challenge is to start moving as many of these nine million people as we can up to Level 3, so they can successfully move into skilled jobs. In the Literacy and Essential Skills field, we describe Level 3 as the point at which individuals have developed the foundational skills necessary to continue learning throughout their lives. If we can achieve this "levelling up" of our labour force, the ripple effects throughout Canada will be truly astounding.

Research shows a clear association between higher Literacy and Essential Skills levels and improved incomes (and tax revenues), labour force attachment, and health and safety outcomes. The estimated savings on direct government costs for Employment Insurance, Social Assistance and Workers Compensation alone could generate an ROI well over 1000%. Raising the L/ES level of the Canadian workforce is a strategic investment with an enormous potential payoff, not the "endless spending to increase deficits" that Minister Flaherty does not wish to engage in.

If we fail to make effective investments in Literacy and Essential Skills, Canada could see a future of skills shortages, falling incomes, rising income-support and health care costs, rapidly growing income inequality, and lower productivity and GDP. The government of Canada has an important leadership role to play in building a multi-sectoral concerted effort to address this national priority issue. Canada simply cannot afford to neglect our human infrastructure.

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