Essential skills vs. Employability Skills

June 18, 2019 | Workforce Development

Understanding how they work together and link to workforce development

By Kelly Boutilier

As a curriculum designer, I was astonished to learn recently that I have been confusing Essential Skills with Employability Skills – and a quick internet search revealed I was not alone. These two equally important, yet distinctly different skillsets, get confused all the time.

My discovery came at a three-day workshop hosted by Alberta Workforce Essential Skills focussing on Essential Skills and Curriculum Integration. The learning opportunity turned out to be important to the development of CEDEC’s integrated education model pilot. Between 1994 and 1998 twenty-three countries participated in the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS). The goal of this survey was to compare the level and distribution of literacy skills in each country and to “shed light on variables that influence the development and sustainability of work, learning, and life skills.”

The survey looked at three different areas of literacy skills – writing, document use and numeracy – and used a rating scale of zero to 500 points, dividing results into competency levels ranging from 1 (very basic skills) to 5 (significant literacy skills).

For many years, literacy organisations in Canada had worked to increase awareness to help the general population understand the connection between literacy and the ability to reach your full economic and personal potential. Finally, this survey made the connection very clear: when someone is functioning at a level two in the IALS scale, they are reading to understand. It is not until an individual can function at a level 3 on the IALS scale that they begin to read to learn. It is at this point that an individual’s growth leaps exponentially.

How did Canada fare in the survey?

A startling 49% of the population surveyed were functioning below the IALS level 3. Of those that scored in this range, there was no apparent correlation between age, race, ethnicity, gender or even education level. Repeat surveys showed little change in the results.

Obviously, Canada’s literacy strategy needed to change. Human Resources and Skills Development Canada took note and worked to develop a comprehensive framework for literacy skills development and this is how the Nine Workplace Essential Skills came into existence:

  1. Reading
  2. Document Use
  3. Numeracy
  4. Writing
  5. Oral Communication
  6. Working with Others
  7. Critical Thinking
  8. Digital Technology
  9. Continuous Learning

The Essential Skills Framework is available online, divided by level, based on the IALS and explicitly lists examples of the types of tasks an individual must be able to perform at each level. It is possible to search the Essential Skills required by employment opportunity on the Job Bank Canada website.

These skills are Essential because they are foundational and facilitate learning of additional skills. In practical terms, if an individual struggles with:

  • reading simple instructions in the workplace, they may miss out on important safety warnings and even cause a dangerous situation;
  • numeracy, they may be unable to estimate the time required to perform a job or to plan their own personal budgeting;
  • foundational computer skills, they are in danger of being left behind in a rapidly transforming economy.

The numbers are staggering.

49% of Canadians are struggling with Essential Skills
Over 18 million people in Canada are not meeting their personal and economic potential.

Another fun fact shared by the trainer: many adults who have limited literacy skills aren’t keen on admitting it. Most will not attend a literacy class as it means accepting that they need help. This is how we get to 18 million, people!

If we want to be effective in our training programs, we need to assess literacy levels of our participants at the beginning of our sessions and build in activities that support Essential Skill development. We must consider deliberately integrating literacy skill building activities into our training curriculum, be it in customer service or computer engineering, nursing or construction. Everyone benefits from improved literacy skills.

To recap, Essential Skills connect to nine literacy-based competencies developed by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. These skills fall within a clear framework and include the foundation skills required for learning.

Employability Skills are what we commonly referred to as soft skills which do not have a globally accepted definition and cover a broad range of competencies including the ability to manage stress, be accountable, time management and confidence.  There are organisations that are working on creating more clear definitions of these skills and how to develop them, including Futureworx, a social purpose organisation in Nova Scotia with a mission to address employment and skills development needs in that province.

Stay tuned for more on employability skills!

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