Literacy Utilization in Canadian Workplaces

Adults with limited literacy skills have long been a cause for concern since such individuals have difficulty coping in a complex society. However, the focus of debate regarding the adult literacy "problem" has shifted as concerns about national economic competitiveness have come to dominate public policy discussions. Thus, literacy has become a central human resource development theme, the argument being that Canada may be facing a "job-skills gap" because of low levels of literacy in the workforce. But while several national studies have documented literacy levels among Canadian workers, there has been little systematic research on how the literacy skills of workers are actually used in their jobs. A high-skill workforce is clearly part of the economic competitiveness equation, so too is a labour market that offers high-skill employment.
This report pursues a theoretically-informed research agenda on workplace literacy utilization. In order to address the existing research gap on this topic, we use data from the Canadian component of the 1994 International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS). The first main goal of the analysis is to map the "fit" or "mismatch" between workers’ literacy skills (prose, document, and quantitative literacy) and their job requirements. Within the "mismatch" category, the prevalence of literacy deficits (i.e., workers with limited literacy skills in jobs that frequently require reading, writing, and mathematical operations) and literacy surpluses (workers with well-developed literacy skills in jobs that do not take advantage of these skills) is documented. The second research goal in this report is to attempt a test of the "use it or lose it" hypothesis, the argument being that, if literacy skills are not used regularly, they could be lost.
The IALS data show that about three-quarters of Canadian workers are in jobs with literacy skill requirements that roughly "fit" their literacy skills. Within the "mismatch" category, literacy surplus is much more evident than literacy deficit. Thus, with respect to literacy, the "job-skills gap" may be a problem of not enough high-skill jobs. While there clearly are workers with limited literacy skills, there are many more in jobs that do not take full advantage of their well-developed literacy skills.
This under-utilization of literacy skills is a serious human resource development problem. Of even greater concern is the potential loss of some of these literacy skills as a result of disuse. While our cross-sectional test of the "use it or lose it" hypothesis provides only weak support for the argument about potential literacy loss, a range of evidence from other related areas of research strengthens the argument.
See also:
H. Krahn and G. Lowe
1999 "Literacy in the workplace."
Perspectives on Labour and Income 11(2): 38-44.

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