Nearly half of Canada’s population has a big roadblock ahead of them when it comes to post-pandemic economic recovery — and it’s not the novel coronavirus but a fundamental set of skills for daily life.
Poor reading and writing skills make up a literacy gap in Canada with consequences for both democracy and the economy. Experts say the gap is due in part to an abundance of jobs in the past that do not require the daily use of reading comprehension and information synthesis skills.
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In short, literacy is not like riding a bike. It takes practice to retain those skills, and Canada’s economy does not provide the opportunity to do that for many workers.
Despite relatively high education rates, an analysis of international assessments by Statistics Canada in 2013 showed that more than one in six adult Canadians fell short of passing the most basic set of literacy tests.
The Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIACC) looks at how adults process information and how they use literacy, mathematics and problem solving both at home and at work.
If you’re working in a particular role, whatever it is, where reading and writing isn’t necessarily a big part of the job, those skills may erode over time.– Michael Burt, Conference Board of Canada
Canada’s results, which have not substantially changed since the first PIACC, show that many in this country are unable to complete ordinary tasks, such as filling out a job application, reading a news article or sending an email.
About half the adult population fell short of passing a high school level of assessment, by testing the ability to digest lengthier and more complex texts while processing the information accurately.
“Generally speaking, we’re below average compared to other OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries in terms of adult literacy, numeracy skills,” said Michael Burt, an economist with the Conference Board of Canada.
The not-for-profit research organization gave Canada a “C” grade in adult literacy back in 2014.
“I think it really boils down to [Canadians] have a competitiveness challenge,” he told CBC Radio’s Cost of Living. “We cannot stand still because our competitors certainly are not.”
Countries that score higher than Canada in the international skills assessment, which Statistics Canada participates in, include Japan, Australia, Sweden, Finland and Holland.
The literacy gap is not limited to immigrants
Unsurprisingly, new Canadians with a native language other than English or French appear in the lowest literacy category at a higher rate than their Canadian-born counterparts.
In some provinces, immigrants with a very high literacy score actually represented a higher proportion than the Canadian-born population. Statistics Canada’s analysis of the PIAAC data indicated that more “established immigrants,” who had been in Canada longer, were represented in the lowest literacy groups at roughly the same proportion as those born in the country.
However, the lowest-scoring groups also include a significant number of Indigenous people in Canada, as well as English and French speakers born in this country.
It’s important to separate out those born in Canada from those born abroad, because while some immigrants may struggle with a new language, a significant number also have extensive job experience and education and are highly skilled in their original languages.
Those born and raised in Canada who struggle with language, math and computer proficiency, on the other hand, are less visible because, as advocates put it, they’re very good at “faking it.”
“They tend to hide this fact from everyone because of the fear of being called names,” said Monica Das, executive director of Project Adult Literacy Society (PALS) in Edmonton.
“‘Dumb, stupid, crazy, handicapped’ and other words are used to describe you as soon as you identify yourself as someone who struggles with reading and writing.”
Deep ‘shame’ felt by native English speakers
Native English speakers make up about half of the clients who turn to PALS for help, Das said.
Eddy Piché, 59, is one of them.
The Edmontonian spent nearly 30 years driving trucks all over Ontario and Alberta before coming to terms with what he called his “shame.”
“Some people, like, come out of college, university, they use big words and all that stuff,” Piché said. “They make you feel you really can’t do this, can’t do that. You feel shame.”
As a child, Piché said, it always took him 10 extra minutes to learn everything. He describes those extra minutes, every time, as enough to set him back for life.
“In the old days, like in the 1970s, if you had a hard time learning and stuff, like, they put you back. They put you in special ed classes,” he recalled.
Piché said because he was in special education, no one ever bothered to teach him how to read and write.
As a truck driver, he excelled by memorizing landmarks instead of reading road signs.
At the age of 48, Piché decided to go back to school to become a social worker after overcoming significant setbacks in his life — including mental illness and addiction.
At first, he relied on his wife to help write his papers. Eventually Piché enrolled in Edmonton’s PALS program and met with a volunteer tutor each week to work on his reading comprehension and writing skills.
Today, he works with homeless and other marginalized populations.
“Some people never gave up on me, so I do the same thing. I don’t give up,” Piché told The Cost of Living. “My motto is never leave anybody behind. That’s why I do social work.”
Skills needed in a changing, automated economy
Eddy Piché’s ability to retrain and pivot is a success story, but on its own it does not scale up to solve Canada’s problem with literacy.
For years, Canada had an abundance of high-paying jobs that didn’t require high levels of literacy, such as natural resource-based work, said the Conference Board of Canada’s Burt.
“Because of the nature of our economy, things like mining and forestry are more prominent in our economy than some of our OECD peers,” he explained in a comparison to countries such as Japan or Sweden.
Due to these economic factors, even if the Canadian education system is producing graduates with high enough literacy scores, these skills sets can atrophy.
“If you’re working in a particular role, whatever it is, where reading and writing isn’t necessarily a big part of the job, those skills may erode over time,” Burt said.
Financial incentives also distort whether Canadians complete their education, which would impact the level of their literacy skills as they enter the workforce to try for higher wages.
At the height of the oil boom, Alberta had a higher high school dropout rate than several other provinces. But the portion of the population with less education now has fewer places to go as changes to the economy accelerate, Burt said.
“The oil and gas sector is not the growth driver for the economy as it was five years ago,” the economist said. “The dynamics around that have changed considerably in recent years. On top of that, we’re looking at the impacts of digital technologies and automation on the workforce.”
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As many as one in five jobs in Canada are at risk of being automated, according to the Conference Board of Canada.
Some Canadians filling those “high-risk, low-mobility” jobs most susceptible to automation would have difficulty shifting to work that requires literacy; they tend to come from some of the country’s largest industries, such as manufacturing, food services, accommodation, retail and construction.
“These are people whose jobs are at risk to automation, and they have limited ability to move over to other jobs that are at lower risk,” Burt explained.
“Basically, there’s a real need to to think about how skills requirements are changing in the workforce,” he said. “How do we adequately prepare people for entering the workforce and how do we ensure that there are good transition pathways available for people already in the workforce today?”
Low literacy affects making informed democratic decisions
Another challenge that comes with low literacy is the difficulty in understanding information needed to make informed decisions, both in daily life and at the ballot box.
Forty-nine per cent of the Canadian population does not hit a level of literacy that can “disregard irrelevant or inappropriate content” to accurately answer questions about something they have read.
The impact of this has, perhaps, become more clear with the rise of online disinformation. On the internet, there’s no shortage of bad information to push people into making badly informed decisions. Researchers say those who struggle with reading and writing tend to also perform poorly on the digital front.
Samantha Bradshaw, a a postdoctoral fellow at the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford University in California, studies the impact of social media misinformation and told Cost of Living that tackling digital literacy is just as important as traditional books on paper.
“Consuming content digitally is increasingly more a part of our media diet and how we get information about politics,” Bradshaw said, adding that big tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter are likely to face more government scrutiny from regulators.
According to Bradshaw, it’s critical for anyone making decisions affecting today’s democratic institutions to understand both how the information they get online is delivered to them and the biases that are present.
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“So being able to understand both the mechanisms through which information is delivered to us through these online systems, the biases that exist within the technology, as well as having the literacy skills to communicate, to interpret, to understand the argumentation and the ways in which content and narrations are being told through an online digital media,” she said.
A lot of untapped potential
There’s no magic solution to narrowing Canada’s literacy gap.
Education and training play a role, but workers and employers also need to put a higher premium on soft skills, such as reading comprehension and communication, Burt said.
“I think part of it is understanding what skills make people more resilient,” he said.
The good news is those with low literacy skills — who are most at risk of losing their jobs — have a lot of untapped potential, according to those working in the sector.
Eddy Piché serves as an example.
His skill set in problem-solving was a great fit for social work, even before he returned to school to upgrade his credentials.
But because he was unable to fill out a job application, write a caseload report or respond to emails, his options to capitalize on those soft skills to gain employment were severely limited.
“People forget to realize that this adult has been able to support himself all this time without someone else knowing that he can’t read or write,” said Monica Das with PALS in Edmonton.
“You should appreciate the amount of skills that this person has.”
Written and produced by Falice Chin.
Click “listen” at the top of the page to hear this segment, or download the Cost of Living podcast.
The Cost of Living airs every week on CBC Radio One, Sundays at 12:00 p.m. (12:30 NT).
Spinning waste into gold: Victoria, Nanaimo councillors call for 'circular economy' strategy – Times Colonist
When people talk about a circular economy in which materials get reused and less waste ends up in landfills, they’re really talking about entrepreneurs such as Meaghan McDonald.
The 31-year-old Victoria woman has launched a new venture that aims to make money and protect the environment at the same time.
Her brand, Salt Legacy, plans to give new life to discarded or “dead” sails from sailboats by using the durable, water- and sun-resistant materials to make backpacks, surfboard bags and other outdoor gear rather than burying all that nylon and polyester underground.
“I’ve always been really eco-conscious and always wanted to create something that would kind of help within the circular economy,” McDonald said.
She has a background in biology rather than business, so she got help from an eight-month incubator program run by Victoria’s Project Zero — a partnership between the non-profit Synergy Foundation and Vancity that assists start-up businesses looking to operate in a circular economy.
Project Zero envisions a Vancouver Island where, by 2040, “our waste will be our greatest resource” and hundreds of people will be working for small independent businesses that, like McDonald, will be “upcycling” materials into new products.
Municipal politicians are getting on board.
Victoria Coun. Jeremy Loveday describes the circular economy as an immense opportunity “to create good green jobs and live on this planet in a way that will actually be sustainable.”
That’s why he got Victoria council to endorse a resolution to the Union of B.C. Municipalities, calling on the provincial government to develop a circular-economy strategy.
Loveday said such a strategy would allow the province to encourage and mandate that governments, businesses and residents adopt circular-economy practices.
“And, I think, local governments are at the heart of it because cities are where the population, carbon emissions, waste and innovation are all occurring.”
His motion, which emerged from the Climate Caucus, a non-partisan network of more than 300 elected officials across Canada, received final approval from Victoria council on Thursday.
In a related move, council also backed Loveday’s resolution to the UBCM asking the province to adopt right-to-repair legislation, which would ensure citizens have access to the parts and information they need to fix items, rather than being discouraged by companies that claim ownership over the intellectual property of their products.
“The idea, essentially, is that it’s time for the era of planned obsolescence to be over, and that consumers should have the right to receive information about their products, have access to spare parts, and that we should be able to repair the things that we purchase, rather than having a product that is designed to have an end of life,” Loveday said.
Nanaimo Coun. Ben Geselbracht won approval from his council for similar motions last week, as well as a third resolution calling for a provincial strategy to deal with demolition and construction waste.
Geselbracht said that the more municipal councils sign on to the resolutions, the stronger the case for them receiving serious consideration at the next UBCM convention.
“Then, hopefully, when it gets passed to the minister, there’s a pretty clear mandate that this is an important issue and we really demand action on it.”
As for McDonald, she’s forging ahead with her business plans and collecting old sails from marinas and sailing clubs that are only too happy to donate materials destined for the landfill.
She has the prototype for her backpack complete, work is underway on a fanny pack and a surfboard bag is in the design stage.
McDonald is also gathering the history of each discarded sail, so that she can attach stories of adventure and world travel to her new products.
“Then the new consumer can kind of have a bit of that history and that connection piece to the backpack they just bought,” she said.
In that way, her products will keep stories circulating as well as the economy.
The Economy, Oil Demand And Prices – Forbes
Given data lags and uncertainty, it is often said that the Fed guidance of the economy is like someone driving through a tunnel with the windshield painted black, relying on the rearview mirrors and bouncing off the walls. Given current divergent views amongst the political tribes, I would add as a corollary that there’s a child in the backseat hitting the driver with a pillow, screaming slow down they’re scared, while another child does the same, except screaming they need a bathroom and the car should speed up.
Current debt levels now prevailing in most of the world’s governments are outside of historical experience, so far as I know, and could have a significant impact on future growth and interest rates. Continued stimuli to promote economic recovery could mean low interest rates and rapid growth, which would certainly fuel stronger oil demand. Or it could result in inflation and thus high interest rates, leading to a new recession. Similarly, attempting to pay down the debt could slow economic growth and depress oil prices.
Aside from growth levels, interest rates have an impact on energy investment and could influence future fuel mixes. For example, low interest rates theoretically favor capital-intensive types of energy, including nuclear and renewables, along with long-term projects like deepwater oil and gas fields. (High interest rates favor shale oil and gas, because of their shorter payoff period.) It is possible that the recent surge in solar and wind power investment reflects recent low interest rates, although mandates and subsidies are probably more influential.
The heavy debt levels could, on the other hand, reduce subsidies for renewables including electric vehicles. Although it has become a cliché to claim that solar and wind are cheaper even than coal power, this is very misleading: at the least, new investment would be required to replace fossil fuels with renewables. The International Energy Agency, in its latest World Energy Outlook, projects investment needed in its scenarios, and the difference between the Stated Policies Scenario and the Sustainable Development Scenario would be $340 billion a year in the 2020s and reaches $1 trillion per year in the 2030s. (I’ve railed against the injustice of giving well-to-do citizens large grants to buy electric vehicles, which are one of the most expensive ways of reducing GHG that is given serios consideration.)
And where some talk about a new commodity supercycle, I worry that there is a good chance that instead there will be a collapse in asset values, with markets possibly entering bubble territory. One famous, possibly apocryphal story, is that Joe Kennedy (patriarch of the political dynasty) sold off his stock holdings just before the crash of 1929 after hearing a shoeshine boy give a stock tip: that convinced him the market was overbought. Similarly, it would seem that the roaring bull market for certain stocks such as Gamestop
might not be the result of fundamentals but rather the current expansionist monetary policy, which cannot last forever.
And the growing use of SPACs and the surging value of Bitcoin also reminds me of the late Charles Kindleberger’s book, Manias, Panics and Crashes which describes how the invention of new forms of credit led to an expansion of the monetary supply, which caused asset bubbles followed by crashes. This could lead to a reversion to value stocks, such as oil and gas producers as well as utilities, ESG notwithstanding.
To be honest, though, I feel kind of like I’m in the passenger seat of the Fed’s car shouting, “Go left! No, Right! No, Stop!” Perhaps the next killer app will be a GPS for monetary policy.
UK's Sunak says vaccine passport idea might help the economy – TheChronicleHerald.ca
LONDON (Reuters) – British finance minister Rishi Sunak said the idea of giving people vaccine passports or certificates to allow them to enter venues or events might be a way to help the country and its economy recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
“Obviously it is a complicated but potentially very relevant question for helping us reopen those parts of our country like mass events,” Sunak told BBC television on Sunday.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last week that the government would hold a review to consider the scientific, moral, philosophical and ethical questions about using vaccine certificates for people who have received a coronavirus shot, which could help entertainment and hospitality venues reopen.
(Reporting by William Schomberg and David Milliken; Editing by David Clarke)
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