Lack of ‘basic skills’ a growing concern in the workforce

Dear Working Wise:

I am struggling to find enough staff for my retail electronics store who have the basic math and computer skills required to do their jobs. Why are these simple skills so hard to find? Signed Frustrated

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. The definition of workplace literacy, however, has expanded to include these essential skills:



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 ( The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released the results from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies.

Yet, one in five Albertans face daily literacy and numeracy challenges.

The 2015 Smarten Up: It’s time to build essential skills report found that 30 per cent of university graduates and 40 per cent 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.

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 one per cent increase in essential skills can translate into a two-and-a-half per cent productivity increase, according to a 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 supports the following literacy programs:

Academic Upgrading

Literacy in School

Work Foundations

Community Adult Learning

Workplace Essential Skills Training.

For more information about Community Adult Learning, visit

September is Literacy Month, and September 22 is Essential Skills Day.

To learn more about Literacy and Essential Skills:

Read the Workplace Essential Skills article on

Check out the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills web page

Review ABC Life Literacy Canada’s web page

Good luck!

Do you have a work-related question? Send your questions to Working Wise at Charles Strachey is a manager with Alberta Community and Social Services. This column is provided for general information.

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