Workplace Literacy


Improved employee literacy is essential to meet the challenges of changing markets.


Literacy: “The ability to understand and employ printed information in daily activities, at home, at work and in the community — to achieve one’s goals and to develop one’s knowledge and potential” (Definition provided by the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey)

We live in a country where we take literacy for granted. After all, we spend millions on our education system and pride ourselves in having some of the best universities in the world.

And yet, 42% of Canadian adults between the ages of 16 and 65 have low literacy skills. What is considered literacy? Studies focus on three categories:

  • Prose literacy: the ability to understand and use information from texts such as editorials, news stories, poems, and fiction.
  • Document literacy: the ability to locate and use information from documents such as job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables, and graphs.
  • Quantitative literacy: the ability to perform arithmetic functions such as balancing a chequebook, calculating a tip, or completing an order form.

Employers may not realize the negative impact that low literacy skills have on their bottom line. Issues that accompany low literacy include:

  • inability to understand safety rules
  • inability to interpret and explain work-related issues to fellow employees or those they are training, thereby lowering the standards of excellence throughout the business
  • inability to problem solve with reference to manuals, government documents, schematics, graphs, etc.
  • increased in-house training costs to produce goods and services and carry out corporate policy
  • lost opportunities to promote individuals with skills but who cannot meet established deadlines, work within budget, or understand quality assurance guidelines
  • risk of accidents or errors when individuals cannot calculate simple maximum weight or height capacities of equipment
  • lost productivity when employees cannot adapt to new instructions
  • lost revenue when employees make errors in cost calculations

Essential Skills

When the Conference Board of Canada asked the question “Is Canada’s workforce sufficiently skilled?” in a June 2014 document, the answer was:
No. Given that Canada is a leader in post-secondary educational attainment, one might reasonably expect that the country would also be a leader in adult skills. Yet Canada and most provinces do relatively poorly on adult literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills, earning mainly “C” and “D” grades.

To improve on these standings, Human Resources and Social Development Canada has identified nine essential skills needed to improve workplace literacy:

  • reading
  • document use (understand electronic and paper formats)
  • writing
  • numeracy
  • oral communication
  • thinking
  • digital technology
  • working with others
  • continuous learning (ability to increase knowledge and adapt to change)

The Canadian workplace is experiencing a shortage of skilled labour as older, experienced persons retire. To fill the gap, employers are required to hire younger, less experienced individuals and immigrants.

Technically skilled workers may not be promoted because they lack literacy skills.

Younger employees may have advanced entry skills in some of the aforementioned attributes (e.g., continuous learning and computer use) but lose opportunities for promotion because they lack skills in communication, numeracy or writing.

Immigrants certainly have job skills, but the inability to use either official languages creates a learning problem in the workplace.

Future Success

If Canadian businesses want to succeed, management must examine current operations and imagine what skills will be needed five to 10 years down the road. Because changing markets will require highly literate employees, more time and money will have to be spent within the organization to increase employee competence.

To make this happen, employers will need to identify the literacy levels of current employees and then be prepared to invest more time and money on organizational training. Such training should not only reinforce such basic skills as reading, writing and arithmetic, but also encourage development of the other essential skills that promising employees may lack.

Such a program will mean that businesses should seek outside help to assess the literacy needs of all employees, seek assistance with sourcing appropriate programs, hire knowledgeable experts, and work up a budget and schedule training as a necessary part of the workplace model.

Long-Term Benefits

The end result of improving literacy skills will be less time lost because of accidents, fewer insurance and workplace safety claims, improved product quality and greater productivity. Both employees and employers should reap the rewards and benefits

Contact Argento CPA today!


Disclaimer: BUSINESS MATTERS deals with a number of complex issues in a concise manner; it is recommended that accounting, legal or other appropriate professional advice should be sought before acting upon any of the information contained therein.
Although every reasonable effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this letter, no individual or organization involved in either the preparation or distribution of this letter accepts any contractual, tortious, or any other form of liability for its contents or for any consequences arising from its use.
BUSINESS MATTERS is prepared bimonthly by the Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada for the clients of its members.
Richard Fulcher, CPA, CA – Author; Patricia Adamson, M.A., M.I.St. – CPA Canada Editor.
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