Canadian Manufacturing

Literacy and math on the decline in Canada’s workforce

A report from C.D. Howe suggests math and literacy skills are eroding with age at an accelerated rate, intensifying the negative impact of an aging workforce


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The report says that educational attainment and skills retention are trending in the opposite direction.

TORONTO—Canada’s workforce has experienced a troubling slide in literacy and numeracy skills, despite higher levels of education and improvements in learning technology, according to a new report from the C.D. Howe Institute.

Report author Parisa Mahboubi compares results of international surveys from 2003 and 2012 and finds Canadians’ skill levels declining across all age groups studied.

The report shows that aging and generational differences, such as in education quality and work environment, largely contribute to these declines. Skills erode with age at an accelerated rate, intensifying the negative impact of aging population on average performance. As well, recent generations of Canadians achieved lower scores in literacy and numeracy, regardless of education level.

“More education does not necessarily guarantee more skills: educational attainment, which is generally defined as the highest degree an individual has completed, and skills attainment are trending in the opposite direction,” states Mahboubi, who suggests that lowering the admission bar for post-secondary institutions is among the factors contributing to declining skills levels.

The report also highlights that average literacy test scores of individuals aged 55 years or older in 2012 declined at a faster rate than others. Therefore, slowing the rate of skills deterioration is important, especially among low-skilled workers who see sharper decline rates as they age.

Mahboubi makes the following recommendations to tackle Canada’s decline in skills:

  • Provinces should focus their attention on education quality at all levels.
  • Federal and provincial government should encourage active learning and offer more targeted training opportunities for individuals that are at most risk to skills deterioration.
  • Provincial and federal policymakers need to review their on-the-job training programs to ensure their effectiveness.

“Improving these policies will help develop a more skilled workforce and would drive broader prosperity and economic growth with positive social impacts,” concludes Mahboubi.

Visit the C.D. Howe site to read the full report.


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