Addressing Skill Gaps in Canada


Canada supports one of the most expensive education systems in the world; yet four out of 10 graduates from the secondary school system do not have the minimum level of essential skills required to function adequately within the workforce.

Professional occupations that cannot find skilled people often have to reduce the minimum level of job requirements in order to fill empty positions.

How do we address these gaps? The most serious skill shortages are within jobs that require an average level of skills; and the good news is that with a small investment of 40 individual hours of intervention, the skill levels of a significant number of Canadian adults can be increased to functional levels. This would result in increased productivity and opportunities for those who would otherwise be left behind. However despite our investments to date, Canada is still lagging behind countries like China.

The federal government has recently announced a Job Grants Program to encourage the private sector into contributing $5,000 to support the training of an employee. As an incentive, this amount is to be matched by provincial/territorial and federal governments, bringing the total up to $15,000 for the training of a single employee. It is an effort to address the weaknesses of a lame K to 12 system and adult education programs fraught with jurisdictional barriers and siloed approaches. Will this work where other methods have not? Who will access these training dollars? Who will provide the training? Who will evaluate, and what will be the measures used? At the very least, are we ready to come together to offer a consistent approach to skill development?


Education is an important determinant of health and economic growth, and with the increasing use of technology across all sectors, the minimum level of skills required to function at home and the workplace is also increasing. As Canadians, how do we compare internationally with respect to our employability skills and functional literacy? How skilled are we in comparison with adults in other countries? Answers to these questions are good predictors of our future strength and prosperity as a country.

The history of adult literacy in Canada is based on a series of surveys. The very first one, undertaken in 1985, called the “Literacy Skills Used in Daily Activities” (LSUDA), was a wake-up call, and an indication that we might have a problem. This resulted in Peter Calamai’s groundbreaking report, Broken Words. Subsequently, Canada participated in the first multi-year, multi-language assessment of adult literacy in 1994-95. This was called the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) in which literacy was measured in terms of prose, document, and quantitative literacy. According to the survey, 43 percent of Canadians between the ages of 16 and 65 scored at the lowest two levels of literacy. Level three (out of five) was identified as being the minimum level required for an individual to function adequately in Canadian society.

In 2003, The International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS) was undertaken as the Canadian component of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL). Supported in part by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the ALL is a comparative study of Prose, Document and Quantitative literacy in 12 countries: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the USA. The survey found that Canadian skill levels had not increased significantly from the 1994 survey.

The most recent survey, scheduled to be released later in 2013, is called the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIACC). It builds upon the earlier understanding of literacy, and makes it more relevant by including the skills of reading in digital environments.

Nilambri Ghai is currently working with the Canadian Literacy and Learning Network. She was a literacy teacher in Montreal with the Commission Scolaire du Sault-St-Louis. Nilambri worked in policy and programming with the National Literacy Secretariat and the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch of Health Canada. She retired from the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills within the department of Human Resources and Skills Development, Canada.