Problems with “basic” skills?


Dear Working Wise:
Like many employers, I’m struggling to find good people who can do the job. I own a small retail shop, and so my employees don’t have to be highly trained, but they do need to have basic math and computer skills. 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 problem.

An ABC Life Literacy Canada survey of employers last year found that 80 per cent of Canadian employers are having difficulty finding staff with the right skills and 76 per cent agreed that literacy is a major issue in Canada’s workforce.

When most of us think of literacy, we think of reading and writing, but the definition of workplace literacy has been expanded to include the following essential skills:

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

One in three working-age Albertans do not have the foundational literacy skills they need to succeed in today’s workplace.

It’s a real problem. A friend told me a story this week about having a 15 per cent off coupon for a restaurant, but no one at the restaurant knew how to calculate the discount.

Literacy and essential skills enable us to think critically, learn new skills, communicate effectively, solve problems, and manage change. They have also been found to impact 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.

Of course, we all have these abilities—it’s just a matter of how good they are. Essential skills can be taught and measured, but nearly half of Canadians would not high enough according to the Calgary-based Essential Skills Group. They have a short, interesting video on essential skills on their website at

It pays to take essential skills seriously. Workers with good essential skills tend to be: healthier, safer on the job; more productive; adapt to change better; learn technical skills faster; make more money; and find work faster – 29 weeks faster.

Studies show that a one per cent increase in essential skills translates into a two-and-a-half per cent increase in productivity.

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

The Alberta Government produced Living Literacy: A Literacy Framework for Alberta’s Next Generation Economy to coordinate the efforts of the government and its many partners to improve the literacy levels of Albertans. The framework’s primary goal is to increase the literacy level of Albertans by 10 per cent or have 70 per cent of Albertans with literacy levels equivalent to high-school completion by 2020. You can learn more at

September is Literacy Month and September 27 is Essential Skills Day. You can learn more about literacy and essential skills, and discover resources for both employers and employees, by visiting Literacy Alberta at or calling their helpline 1-800-767-3231.

Information is also available at:

Good luck!

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