New Brunswick’s Low Literacy: Bad for Business

It’s no secret that New Brunswick has a lot of challenges to overcome if it’s ever going to boost its economy, grow business and play on the global stage.

Yet, one of these challenges is the lack of a skill so essential, it’s no wonder the province has been struggling economically for the past few decades:

Half of New Brunswick’s adults are functionally illiterate. And looking at the recent numbers from the school system, progress is slow coming.

Not only does low literacy have huge negative impacts on society, some say it’s also detrimental to future business and economic growth.

How did we get here?

According to the 2014 PIACC (Program from International Assessment of Adult Competencies) results for literacy, around 50 per cent of Anglophone New Brunswickers and just over 60 per cent of Francophones fell between reading levels 0-2. Falling into that range means the person has limited skills and can only comprehend information that’s simple and clearly laid out. In other words, functionally illiterate.

The school statistics are not too uplifting either. According to the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015 results, which tests 15-year-olds, New Brunswick came in 7th place for literacy scores, which was well below the Canadian average. The province was followed only by Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

In the 2015-2016 Provincial Literacy Assessment for Grade 2 students, 73.8 per cent met or exceeded the appropriate achievement level in reading. The provincial government’s goal is 90 per cent.

Erin Schryer, executive director of Elementary Literacy, says New Brunswick’s literacy levels have never been the highest, but that could be because such skills weren’t necessarily needed for the jobs that sustained the province’s economy for decades.

“I think we have to look at history and how you look at the economic makeup of New Brunswick. Historically it was in the woods and perhaps workers at that time didn’t require the levels of literacy that we require today,” Schryer says.

Decades ago, it wasn’t uncommon for a person to have a profitable, lifelong career in a mill or other industrial or forestry sector job and never have to read or write. However, with the world moving into a more knowledge-based economy, that’s no longer going to cut it.

“I think part of how you can look at it is that it wasn’t necessarily a problem 50 years ago. You could still work in the woods or work as a trucker and your wife could stay home with your children and you could have a very comfortable life,” Schryer says. “And today that’s not the case. For some reason, our literacy skills, our reading and writing proficiency didn’t keep up with the changes that were required for today’s jobs.”

Bad for business (and, you know, overall society)

The impact of adults with low literacy is well documented. Adults with low literacy are more likely to be unemployed, more likely to not finish high school, and more likely to be engaged with the justice system. They’re also more likely to require and rely on social assistance and other social services.

In turn, this also impacts business and economic growth as a whole and it’s something some in New Brunswick’s business community are concerned about.

“It makes my stomach drop,” says Cathy Simpson, vice-president of T4G and chair of the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation. “When I think about literacy in the simplest terms as someone’s ability to read and write, if you don’t have those skills it’s impossible to participate effectively in our economy.”

“Most entry level jobs require those basic literacy capabilities, not to mention if you’re looking at jobs in specific industries … we’re not only talking about the ability to read and write, we’re talking digital literacy.”

Though many “jobs of the future” are in industries such as IT and tech, Simpson says basic literacy skill has an impact when it comes to finding the people who will fill these jobs.

“These are skills you learn from community college, university, or post-secondary education. So if we have kids going through school and not getting their strong literacy skills and also not getting excited to learn about digital literacy … If they can’t read, how quickly do you think they’re going to shut themselves out thinking that they can do something in the tech sector?” she says.

“That’s where it matters to us [at T4G]. If we don’t get kids strong literacy skills, they’re not getting themselves into educational situations where they are going to thrive in an information-based economy.”

Cathy Simpson

Simpson says low literacy rates may also impact people and businesses moving to New Brunswick. People won’t want to come and establish businesses in the province if they don’t think there’s the human capital to support and sustain them.

“We’re going to struggle if we’re not able to have all of our citizens being able to put themselves in the game to help grow the economy in the sectors that we’re trying to develop like Cybersecurity and Smart Energy and digital technology. We’re not even in the game,” she says.

“Then I think from a societal perspective, if we don’t have this robust education and thriving rates of literacy, companies will go ‘Is New Brunswick the right spot to come in and invest? Am I going to be able to have access to the workforce that I need?’ We’re just making it hard on ourselves.”

“We have to fix it. There’s no plan B.”

How do we fix it?

Erin Schryer says one of the key things is for both parents and schools to engage children as early as possible. She says if children aren’t at the level they need to be by second grade, chances are low that they’ll ever get there.

“It’s very well established that 88 per cent of children reading behind at the end of Grade 2 never learn to read well. Reading problems emerge really early and they’re sustained,” says Schryer. “If you’re not reading well by the end of Grade 2, the odds that you will ever read well are not good. So we can’t afford to be relegating these young children to the side so early in their life.”

Improving literacy rates was a big part of the New Brunswick government’s 10-year education plan announced last fall. But the government’s entrepreneur-in-residence David Alston says there are other options we could be exploring.

One is moving away from an education system made for the industrial revolution to one that’s more personalized to each child. Countries like Finland have already done this.  

“We kind of created school a bit like an assembly line. We create grades, you start at a certain time and you exit at a certain time. If you don’t make the grade in terms of literacy, you’re pushed up to the next thing and we try to fix you on the next part of the conveyer belt,” Alston says. “To me, the idea of personalized education is how do we understand what the full potential could be for a child and what their interests are, where they’re at right now, what type of struggles they may be dealing with … and how do we work with that child individually to help them reach their full potential.”
Another idea is creating a digital education record for each child starting from birth. That way parents and educators know exactly what each child excels at and what they need help with.

“You can’t change what you can’t measure … The way we understand what they’ve learned, the challenges that they have, the resources we can apply to them … all those types of things can be tracked in today’s world, but they have to be tracked on a system,” Alston says. “So the idea of a digital education record is that it’s tracking how they’re doing with the outcomes, how they’re doing in terms of skills and learning new things, so we just don’t keep guessing.”

But what about adults struggling with literacy? They can’t just go back to elementary school and start all over. This is where organizations like the Saint John Learning Exchange come in. The organization offers free programs to help adults reach their education and employment goals. On the literacy front, they offer two programs: GED programming and Workplace Essential Skills (WES).

“Like all our programs, [the GED program is] very individualized. So people can come in at a reading level as low as Grades 3 or 4 and then try to achieve a high school reading level. So we work one-on-one,” says Erin MacKenney, a job developer at the Saint John Learning Exchange. “We have four facilitators who do GED programing and they would do individualized learning plans to help people brush up on their reading and writing skills as well as numeracy.”

While the GED program is the equivalent to what one would study in high school, the WES program is more functional, focusing mainly on the basic literacy and numeracy skills needed to be successful in a workplace.

“So whereas in your GED you’re engaging with text and you’re analyzing things and it’s like high school English [class], WES is really functional literacy,” says MacKenney. “So if somebody is looking to go to work, it’s like how to read through policies and procedures in the workplace, figuring out what they mean, how to fill out paperwork appropriately and very functional numeracy.”

The Saint John Learning Exchange works with people as young as 18 to senior citizens. Many of those whom they help come from multigenerational poverty, a huge issue in the city. While a GED is recognized across the board as the equivalent of a high school diploma, it’s not always achievable for everyone. MacKenney says this is unfortunate since many of those people would excel at the actual job itself.

“So with GED not being achievable for some people and high school being the requirement for a lot of entry-level jobs, it puts a lot of our job seekers in a really tough position. Because a lot of them won’t be able to break into the workforce in the same way they could be able to based on their abilities,” she says.

“One thing that would be wonderful is if a program like a WES program was recognized by all employers as ‘okay, this person has very basic functional literacy, so they can be successful in work. Maybe they can’t write an essay, but they can fill out this form and they can write this basic report.’”

Mackenny’s job at the Learning Exchange is to help link their learners with employers, mostly for entry-level work. She says that although many employers in the city are open to hiring WES program graduates, that’s not always the case.

“We can talk about literacy rates until the cows come home and there’s going to be people who never achieve certain levels that are deemed acceptable. But I believe that putting a focus on functional literacy and having a program like the WES program recognized .… would go a long way,” she says.

“Because I know for sure we have worked with people who will not be able to achieve their GED, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to work because they’re super capable.”

Complex solution to a complex problem

Literacy is a complex issue with many layers. David Alston says New Brunswick can’t just look at literacy rates as statistics, we also need to look at the people behind them. It’s something that can’t just be fixed with a simple change in policy. It will take a very personalized approach since each adult or child struggling with literacy has their own reasons, strengths and weaknesses.

“With that in mind, you need to have the right policies and resources around you. It’s almost a one-to-one problem to solve with every single child because everyone is unique … It’s one of those things that everyone is working on and it has to remain a priority,” he says.

“If we can continue to do this, I think we will eventually catch up in terms of the demand we’re going to have to have in order to solve the problems we have in New Brunswick. To change the province, to change the culture, to create the economy we want. We can do it. It’s going to take time, but it needs to be a priority for everyone across the board.”