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Lacking skills to succeed: Canada would benefit from implementing national literacy strategy

Lacking skills to succeed: Canada would benefit from implementing national literacy strategy

Lacking skills to succeed: Canada would benefit from implementing national literacy strategy

Published on 2 December 2016 Publications by Senator Elizabeth Hubley (retired)

I know many will find this hard to believe – especially in this high-tech world – but 48% of Canadians do not have the literacy skills to participate fully in our society.

Yes – nearly half of Canadians aged 16 to 65 do not have the minimum skills required to succeed in life, and some of the lowest literacy rates in the country are found in Atlantic Canada.

On PEI, it is 46%. This is a serious problem. How can we expect to prosper when our population lacks the skills necessary to succeed?

There are significant benefits related to literacy, both to individuals and to our communities. The first is obvious: economic. We know that there is a correlation between literacy and wage levels. We know that Canadians with low literacy skills are about twice as likely to be unemployed. When employed, they’re more likely to be employed in the lowest paying jobs.

Literacy rates also have an impact on health. First and foremost, a person with low literacy skills can be more likely to have accidents at work, simply because they are unable to read health and safety regulations, or machinery instructions. Overall, they are more likely to be employed in primary resource or the construction industries, and these have accident rates well above average. This results in higher absenteeism, lower productivity, and can even put co-workers at greater risk of injury.

We all lose financially when Islanders are held back by low literacy. There is a real cost involved, in areas like social assistance and health care. The World Literacy Foundation estimates that the economic and social costs of illiteracy in Canada runs more than $32 billion US.

Surprising as it might sound, the numbers are not going to get any better without a lot of work. Even with more and more young people pursuing post-secondary education, they will not offset the number of adults with low literacy skills. As the old adage goes: if you don’t use it, you lose it. Reading is not something a person learns as a child, and then it stays with you all your life; people lose literacy skills as they age.

Luckily enough, on the Island we do have people who are working with great passion and dedication to make some headway on this challenging issue. The PEI Literacy Alliance is one. From their Summer Tutoring Program for Kids to the Adult learning program bursary, the PEI Literacy Alliance does great work to address this persistent challenge.

But like other literacy coalitions, their federal core funding was cancelled by the previous government in 2014. Strapped for money to operate, the PEI Literacy Alliance is in real danger of closing in the near future. Reinstating core funding for this organization would go a long way to helping increase literacy skills on the Island.

Another organization that does great work is Workplace Learning PEI. Some Islanders simply don’t meet the model to gain literacy and essential skills on their own. But Workplace Learning helps by assessing needs, developing a learning plan that suits the person’s schedule, and providing one-on-one support and guidance.

Workplace Learning can also help set up a place for learning at work; they can assess employees to identify needed areas of improvement, then help employer and employee to achieve that goal.

Even with the great work of organizations like these, the fact of the matter is that we lost some ground over the last decade. We lost some organizations and some volunteers and staff. But we need to move forward, and the federal government has to play an integral role.

We should support organizations on the ground that help deliver our literacy programs. We need to encourage more employers to invest in the literacy and essential skills development of their employees. For those with low literacy skills who are unemployed, we need to create alternative learning opportunities. There is no doubt that we would benefit from developing and implementing a national literacy strategy.

If we were to improve literacy levels across the country, we would see real benefits to individuals, to their communities, and to Canada as a whole. We need to do more as a country to ensure that all Canadians are working to their full potential, and we need to start now.