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The Generational Erosion of Canada’s Skills Advantage

By Kristine St-Laurent

The youngest generation of Canadian workers is the most educated cohort to date—so why is it that older Canadians are carrying the highest literacy rates relative to international peers? The OECD’s latest Survey of Adult Skills reveals the two youngest age categories (16-24 years and 25-34 years) are outperformed by many of their international counterparts, while older Canadians (35-65 years) continue to rank above the OECD average in basic skills. 

The OECD survey tested for literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills internationally, among adults aged 16-65 years. In overall proficiency, Canada placed in the middle of the pack. When performance is broken down by age categories, however, there is a surprising trend. Despite higher educational attainment levels among younger Canadians, their performance in essential skills is low compared to many global peers in the 16-34 age bracket.[1][2]

Singapore's performance stands out in the OECD Skills Survey.  Canada ranks 11th in overall skills, while Singapore comes in 27th out of the 35 countries included in the OECD survey.  But if the results are broken down by age category, Canadian skills performance takes a drastic nosedive in the 16-24 and 25-34 age brackets and falls behind many of its international peers, including Singapore.  In all skills categories, Singaporeans 34 years and under have a significant lead over Canadians.  It is not until adults 35 years and older are compared that Canada regains the advantage.  The skills gap continues to widen as age increases for both countries, as evidenced in the graphs below. Older Canadians rank higher in core competencies than most of their international peers in the same age category, largely due to a historically strong public education system and a big jump in the share of the Canadian population with post-secondary education.  However, as shown below, Canada’s competitive advantage in education is eroding as the years progress. 

Its rapid, generational advancement in essential skills is a testament to Singapore’s innovative teaching curricula.[3]  The BC education system could take a leaf from Singapore’s success.  The addition of computer skills including coding into the BC K-12 system is a step in the right direction.  More can be learned from Singapore and other countries who have “leapfrogged” ahead within a generation.[4]

Achieving only average or below average results in adult skills has worrisome implications for the future Canadian workforce.  Without strong core competencies, it is challenging to nurture the advanced skills that our economy and labour force require.  A skilled population means greater employment opportunities, higher wages, and increased productivity. Mastering the essentials, such as language proficiency, numeracy and problem-solving, is vital in a knowledge-based economy and will be critical to improving labour market outcomes.

It is imperative that the present and future Canadian workforce excel in essential adult skills.   These are the foundation on which specialized skills can be developed —and the key to remaining competitive in the global economy.

 


 

[1] For total skills in all age categories, Canada ranks 11th out of 35 OECD countries in the 2016 Adult Skills Survey.  When comparing literacy and numeracy skills in the 16-24 year age bracket, Canada falls to 21st place.  The youngest cohort in the following countries performed better than Canada in the latest OECD Skills rankings:

  1. Finland (tie with JPN)
  2. Japan (tie with FIN)             
  3. Netherlands         
  4. Singapore (tie with KOR)   
  5. Korea (tie with SGP)           
  6. Flanders, Belgium               
  7. Estonia  
  8. Sweden
  9. Lithuania (tie with CZE)      
  10. Czech Republic (tie with LTU)           
  11. Austria  
  12. Australia (3-way tie with GER, SVK)
  13. Germany (3-way tie with SVK, AUS)
  14. Slovak Republic (3-way tie with GER, AUS)    
  15. Poland   
  16. Denmark               
  17. Russia    
  18. Norway (tie with SVN)        
  19. Slovenia (tie with NOR)      
  20. New Zealand
  21. Canada

[2] When comparing literacy and numeracy skills in the 25-34 year age bracket, Canada tied for 15th out of 35 OECD countries in the 2016 Adult Skills Survey. The second youngest cohort in the following countries performed better than Canada in the latest OECD Skills rankings: 

  1. Finland              
  2.  Japan 
  3. Netherlands     
  4.  Flanders, Belgium          
  5. Sweden            
  6. Czech Republic
  7. Norway             
  8. Korea
  9. Estonia              
  10. Denmark        
  11. Singapore      
  12. Germany (tie with AUS)              
  13. Australia (tie with GER)
  14. New Zealand (tie with CAN)
  15. Canada (tie with NZL)

[3] For further details on Singapore’s educational reform, see https://www.oecd.org/countries/singapore/46581101.pdf

[4] For further details on global education systems and outcomes, refer to http://www.oecd.org/edu/bycountry/