The skills paradox

Posted on October 1, 2015 in Education Debates – Full Comment
September 30, 2015.   Andrew Parkin, National Post

How can Canada get the skills boost it needs to stay competitive? For many, the answer lies in pressuring our colleges and universities to do more to ensure that graduates are equipped with the skills employers need. A closer look at the evidence on adult literacy in Canada shows that our most pressing skills gaps lie elsewhere.

Canadians have grown accustomed to hearing that their provincially run education systems are among the best in the world. That’s why Canada’s less-than-stellar scores in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) 2013 study of adult literacy was so jarring. It seems logical to expect high achievement in education to translate into high performance on skills tests for adults. Yet Canada’s adults only placed in middle of the pack.

What’s more, a breakdown of adult literacy results by education level showed Canada lagging in every group: even Canadians with a university degree scored lower than the international average. This news prompted a number of business leaders to suggest that our education systems are not quite as good as we have been led to believe.

A closer look at the adult literacy scores, however, reveals an intriguing paradox. It should not surprise many observers to learn that Canadian immigrants perform much better than immigrants in most other countries. But the scores of non-immigrants in Canada are also above average. This seems odd: Canada places above the international average when the literacy scores of its immigrant and non-immigrant populations are each considered separately, but somehow falls to only average when the scores of both groups are combined.

This puzzle is explained by the unique composition of Canada’s adult population. Among countries in the adult literacy study, Canada has the second-highest proportion of adults who are foreign born, and the highest who are foreign born and whose first language is different from the language of the test.

This matters, because it means that the above-average scores for Canadian immigrants (compared with immigrants elsewhere) can still serve mathematically to lower the overall score for Canadian adults as a whole, simply because of the numerical weight of the immigrant population. In many other countries, by contrast, the comparatively poor performance of immigrants does not have as great of a drag on overall performance, because the size of their immigrant populations is relatively small.

The same pattern holds when we consider the performance of university graduates. In the adult literacy study, two out of every five Canadians with a university degree were born outside the country — that’s over two-and-a-half times the OECD average. In B.C. and Ontario, almost one in every two university graduates is an immigrant to Canada.

This reproduces the same paradox: Canada’s scores for all adults with a university degree are below the international average, even though both immigrant and non-immigrant university graduates in Canada, considered separately, do well. The literacy scores of Canadian-born university graduates are not only above average, they trail those of only a small number of other countries. Scores of Canadian-born graduates in B.C., Ontario and Alberta are among the best in the OECD.

Where does this leave us? In striving to improve the skills of adult Canadians, we need to target those most likely to face skill deficits. These are not the recent graduates of our universities. They are those with lower levels of education, older immigrants and immigrants whose first language is neither English nor French, older workers (particularly those with lower levels of education) and aboriginal Canadians.

Canada’s scores for all adults with a university degree are below the international average, even though both immigrant and non-immigrant graduates, considered separately, do well

In particular, as we continue to prioritize immigration, we should put more effort into delivering and evaluating post-immigration programs to support the language skills and cultural capital that underpin successful integration of newcomers into the labour market. And we should offer more opportunities for training and continuing education for older workers in order to boost the skills of those whose time in the conventional classroom lie years behind them.

Canada’s adult literacy scores actually reveal two pieces of good news: our education systems produce competitive graduates, and our immigration system attracts newcomers who are more highly skilled than immigrants elsewhere. But we can still raise our scores by bringing forward well-targeted policies to support those for whom success in the labour market remains a challenge.

National Post

Andrew Parkin is an independent public policy analyst and a research fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute.

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