10/02/2013 05:25 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Big Data Release on Adult Literacy and Skills Just Around the Corner

Next week, Canada and the rest of the world will get a first glimpse at substantial new data on adult literacy and skills.

The Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies -- or PIAAC -- is an initiative of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). About once every 10 years the OECD conducts an international survey of adult skills. The current survey was first administered during 2011 and 2012 in 24 countries, including Canada, and a second round is now under way. The first international and Pan-Canadian reports from PIAAC will be released on October 8.

The PIAAC survey will generate important baseline information that allows for international comparisons and trend analysis. More importantly, it will provide the essential evidence base needed for meaningful analysis and effective policy and program development, which can ultimately result in better outcomes for adults in Canada.

Skills development is crucial for Canada

There has been no scarcity of articles written over the past year about "Canada's skills mismatch": the problems of skilled labour shortages on one hand and long-term unemployment on the other. Employers identify the skills shortage as a key business challenge and a barrier to Canada's competitiveness in world markets. It is clearly an important issue for the federal government, which introduced a "skills budget" earlier this year.

While there are varying perspectives on the extent of the skilled labour shortage, we do know that the skills level of the workforce is a significant indicator of Canada's productivity and potential for growth. So, how does this relate to the PIAAC reports and data being released next week?

Why PIAAC matters

Canada surveyed about 27,000 individuals, five times more than most other participating countries. The large sample size will provide useful information about the skills levels of working-age adults in all provinces and territories. In addition, over-sampling was done to insure that we would have sufficient information about sub-populations facing skills challenges, including youth, Aboriginal Canadians, and immigrants.

PIAAC represents a significant advance compared to previous OECD surveys. Additional components are being included with the skills survey for the first time: Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments and the Survey of Skills Used at Work. These new pieces focus on the skills needed for individuals to succeed in the 21st century workforce.

"Digital literacy" is a concept that is gaining traction with both adult educators and the general public. As the pace of change accelerates, the ability to adapt quickly when new technology is introduced is becoming increasingly important. The data generated by PIAAC will be invaluable for researchers seeking to improve our understanding of adult learning in the digital age, potentially leading to advances in the tools and techniques used for assessment and training/upskilling.

Investing in skills for the future

Investments in skills development can positively impact our international competitiveness, help fill the demand for highly skilled workers, and improve the lives of many Canadians. The results of the PIAAC survey can be used to help insure that these investments are both effective and efficient -- based on solid evidence and with a high likelihood of successful outcomes.

CLLN believes it is critical that assessment accurately determines an individual's needs for essential skills improvement prior to placement in advanced skills programs. The PIAAC results can help us better understand the skills development needs of Canadians, leading to improvements in assessment and skills upgrading practices that can raise the success rates of apprenticeships and post-secondary programs.

The release of the first PIAAC reports on October 8 might not be a lead news story. Public discussion will likely focus on the high-level findings, international rankings and trends over time, but the real value of this program is in the rich data it provides. PIAAC was specifically designed to produce a "policy-relevant evidence base" to assist governments in improving adult education.

In Canada, with multiple jurisdictions and many stakeholders concerned with adult skills development, it will be up to all of us to work cooperatively going forward to ensure that we use this resource for the benefit of Canada and Canadians.

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