It’s hard to talk about the skills shortage at a time when people are losing their jobs. But the evidence is clear, in spite of the economic downturn, that the combination of our aging population and reduced fertility rates means Canada is facing an acute skills shortages.

Investing in education, at all levels, remains fundamental to our future economic prosperity. Attention has been focused on the fact that Canada ranks lower than other countries at the highest levels of skills attainment, producing fewer PhDs and graduates in sciences, business and engineering. However, the strongest determinant of our prosperity as a nation is rates of literacy.

Just more than a year ago, a report, Literacy Matters, by TD Financial Group estimated the Canadian economy could enjoy a $32-billion boost if literacy rates were improved by only one per cent.

Statistics Canada reports that more than seven million Canadian adults can barely read and comprehend simple printed materials, and more than 25 per cent of Canadian high school graduates lack the literacy skills needed for entry-level jobs.

High school dropouts or graduates with minimal skills — immigrants, particularly women; people with learning disabilities; aboriginal people; and francophones — have lower than average rates. Many develop coping skills to mask their inability to read.

Often, illiteracy creates a vicious cycle of poverty and underachievement. Parents who cannot read to their children cannot help them with their homework or as easily inspire them to achieve. If you are not literate enough to use simple manuals, you probably can’t use the Internet and you most certainly are not going to be part of the “new” economy. Illiteracy also carries significant social costs and is associated with poorer health and higher rates of crime.

The costs of investing in education are dwarfed by the costs of illiteracy.

Like my university colleagues, I want investments in research and in graduate programs. But we must lay a solid foundation in addressing basic skills for all Canadians. It is not simply a matter of developing the “pipeline” to higher education or of equality and social justice, it is founded on a solid business case and our prosperity depends on it.

As Literacy Matters: A Call For Action notes: “It is hard to identify any other single issue that can have such a large payoff to individuals, the economy and society than literacy.”

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