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Working Wise - Essential Skills

Dear Working Wise,

I am consistently disappointed by the poor math and communication skills that many of my new hires have. Why do these basic skills seem so hard to find?
Signed, Frustrated

September 14, 2016

Dear Frustrated,

A lack of what many people consider to be “basic” skills is an emerging workforce concern. When most of us think of literacy, we think of reading and writing, but the definition of workplace literacy has expanded to include these essential skills

  • reading
  • writing
  • document use
  • numeracy (using numbers)
  • computer use
  • critical thinking and problem solving
  • oral communication
  • working with others
  • continuous learning

Albertans scored above the Canadian average in a 2013 international survey of literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills. Results from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies was released by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Yet, 1 in 5 Albertans face daily literacy and numeracy challenges.

The 2015 Smarten Up: It’s Time to Build Essential Skills report found that 30% of university graduates and 40% of the overall workforce are lacking the essential skills they need to compete in our global economy.

Literacy and other essential skills enable us to solve problems, think critically, learn new skills, communicate effectively, and manage change. They have also been found to affect family well-being and our ability to get and keep a job. Solid essential skills are critical, especially with today’s rapidly changing technologies and work environments.

Essential skills can be taught and measured, but according to the Calgary-based Essential Skills Group, nearly half of Canadians would not score high enough. You can check out a short, interesting video on the essential skills group website.

It pays to take essential skills seriously. Workers with good essential skills tend to: be healthier and safer on the job; be more productive; adapt better to change; learn technical skills faster; make more money; and find work faster. A 1% increase in essential skills can translate into a 2.5% productivity increase, according to a 2004 Statistics Canada study called Literacy scores, Human capital and growth across fourteen OECD countries.

Current research shows that employers who invest in essential skills training experience a reduction in errors, absenteeism and workplace injuries, as well as an increase in productivity, and the development of a more nimble, adaptable team.

Investing in literacy and essential skills makes sense, and there are a number of ways to do so. Employers can tap into programs like the Canada-Alberta Job Grant ( to help them invest in their employees or train potential new employees. The Alberta Government also offers the following literacy programs

  • Upgrading
  • Living Literacy
  • Literacy in School
  • Work Foundations
  • Community Adult Learning
  • Workplace Essential Skills Training

You can learn more about these training programs by visiting the Alberta Advanced Education website.

September is Literacy Month, and September 30 is Essential Skills Day. You can learn more on the literacy and essential skills page on the Government of Canada website.

Good luck!

Photo Credit: © iStockphoto/Thomas_EyeDesign

Working Wise is a syndicated newspaper column prepared by the Government of Alberta to answer work-related questions from Albertans. Do you have a work-related question? You can send it to Charles Strachey (, a manager with Alberta Community and Social Services.

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