Why Literacy Is A Major Challenge For Alberta

by Stephen Murgatroyd, PhD

On measures of adult literacy, according to the OECD (see here for a complete report) Canada ranks 10th on scores of adult literacy using the five point scale of literacy widely in use for such comparisons. Ahead of us are Japan, Finland, Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, Norway, Estonia, Slovak Republic and Belgium. Put simply: we are at or about the OECD average.

Estimates of the productivity gains from improving literacy in Canada are enormous. The TD Bank Financial Group projected that raising the literacy of Canadians with inadequate reading skills (levels 1 and 2) to an adequate skill level (level 3) would have an economic payoff close to $80 billion a year. Even a one percent improvement in literacy rates nationally would boost Canada’s economy by $32 billion a year.  According to the C.D. Howe Institute, these effects are three times as great as for investment in physical capital. As well, raising literacy and numeracy for people with weak and poor skills may have a greater impact on long-run economic growth than investing in more highly skilled graduates.

Alberta has developed a framework for response to this opportunity (see here) but it needs considerable focused investment at the level of the firm to aid competitiveness and productivity – functional illiteracy being the largest single factor in our low productivity as a nation (see here),  

In all, approximately 850,000 Albertans in work do not have the cognitive literacy skills needed to perform as fully functioning productive employees in jobs they currently hold. These include individuals in professional positions, like nursing, teaching, technical and scientific positions as well as individuals in retail, service professions and the trades. Making an investment in cognitive literacy and essential skills would:

  • Increase productivity and competitiveness
  • Reduce our reliance on immigration for needed skills
  • Increase tax revenues by over $1,200 per person in work at Level 3 of literacy annually

The average cost of an intervention to bridge the literacy gap per person is $1,500 (app.) – for an estimated 850,00 persons this would be a cost of around $1.275 billion shared between government and industry. A targeted investment of half of this amount aimed at ensuring that key professions and trade have the skills needed to be successful and supporting the implementation of the literacy framework could make Alberta a much more productive jurisdiction.

Literacy is not just an educational challenge, it is a social and economic challenge. Poor literacy harms health, social and economic mobility and limits community development. Literacy is a major challenge for Alberta.

Stephen Murgatroyd, PhD

CEO Collaborative Media Group Inc.