Essential Skills Mismatches

We already have the tools we need to solve the essential skills gap – they are just being underutilized

Forty per cent of the western Canadian workforce does not have the essential skills to do their jobs really well. The basic skills that everyone uses to some extent at work have been called the essential skills by the federal government. Employers often include them under the umbrella of “soft skills.” Reading for full comprehension, writing clearly, speaking and listening for clear communication, using digital technology, continuously learning, basic arithmetic, working with others, using documents of all kinds, critical thinking and decision-making skills; these are the essential skills for living and learning, as well as working.

The Canada West Foundation, in their recent paper, Smarten Up, reported on the extent of these essential skills shortages – they are pervasive across industries and types of jobs. On the other hand, they also showed that an average of 40% of employees aged 16-25, and a large number of older adults, have essential skills levels higher than those needed for their jobs. This results in underemployment and can lead to skill loss over time. These skills mismatches cost us all. For employers, there is a loss of productivity, competitiveness and, ultimately, profit. For individuals, there is a loss of job satisfaction and success and, ultimately, lost income potential.

The demand for essential skills has been rising for years. Even relatively low-skilled jobs require some use of computers, and many high-skilled occupations are demanding critical thinking, decision-making and the capacity to work in high-performance teams. Clear communication skills are important almost everywhere.

Some people have never gained a full complement of the skills required to do their jobs really well, even though they may be technically competent. Every job has its more routine tasks, but higher level essential skills are needed to work in times of change or crisis, or to handle more complex tasks and situations. We all know people who could do an entry-level job well but failed miserably when promoted to a supervisory position. The increased need to communicate clearly, solve problems and resolve conflict requires a whole new level of essential skills that many new supervisors just do not have.

Essential skills take time to learn and must be used often to develop fully. They must also be used often to be maintained – just like any skill, except perhaps riding a bicycle. Most of us know from personal experience that math skills deteriorate over time if not used – few of us have the same level of math skills we had when we finished school. Unfortunately, the same thing happens with other skills, like reading and writing. They sound easy, but are hard to do at high levels. Higher level problem-solving skills and teamwork come with maturity and practice and must also be maintained.

Approaches to ease the essential skills problem

There are a number of approaches which, taken together, hold promise of easing the essential skills problem. Some simple tools for determining a person’s basic skills level are available. Among others, the office of Literacy and Essential Skills at Employment and Social Development Canada, TOWES at Bow Valley College in Calgary, and SkillPlan in Vancouver have some simple online assessment tools.

It is also not too difficult to determine the essential skills level demanded by the jobs for which a person is applying. The Government of Canada Job Bank has essential skills profiles for more than 300 jobs, also available online. These profiles show some of the distinct tasks that are normally part of a job, and the level of essential skills associated with the task. Skills are ranked on a five-level scale. Most jobs in Canada require a reading capacity of Level 3 or higher. Despite the fact that Level 3 is equivalent to the skills associated with a high school diploma, 40% of Canadian adults do not have this level of skill. Many employers find that their new hires just do not have the basic non-technical skills they are expected to have, given their level of credentials.

Ensuring that there is an essential skills match, and filling any skills gaps, will prevent these hiring disappointments for both employers and employees. Most community colleges, some private organizations and local community agencies can help with essential skills upgrading. There are also training providers who will work with employers to devise customized training for their workforce. It is helpful to know that this training may qualify under the Canada Job Grant.

Competency frameworks

Over the last few years, another way to assess the skills of jobseekers has come into vogue. This method, using competency frameworks, is relatively new in Canada but is well known and has been used for years in other parts of the world. Competence is the proven ability to perform a task – and the knowledge of why it is performed that way.

In Canada, we should move towards more competency-based training and assessment. The benefits are huge. A competency framework itemizes all the skills, abilities and knowledge that are required for an occupation. Assessing individuals for these competencies helps to ensure that employees are much better matched to jobs. It also makes developing a career path much easier and can highlight skills gaps. When competency frameworks are fully developed, the training solutions for these skills gaps are much more easily devised.

With competency frameworks, not only are skills mismatches avoided, but training to overcome the missing competencies can streamline the process and shorten training time. For workplace essential skills training, qualified instructors will devise curricula that meet the learning needs of the employee, gears the learning activities towards the business needs of the employer, and uses real workplace materials and processes. Competency-based college and community agency essential skills training will be more generic, but still assess skills, knowledge and abilities using actual essential skills tasks, rather than assuming written tests are enough.

We may not find solutions to all our skills mismatches easily – complex problems do not qualify for silver bullets. However, there are some identified solutions to essential skills gaps, and they are being underutilized.

Some employers have not yet realized that it is more effective to build the skills of an employee who has the right attitude and technical skills for a job, than to keep trying to hire “job-ready” candidates. Employers are also not recognizing that some of their workers have great skills that are not being fully used – skills that if put to good use would add to their bottom line. Employees have not yet figured out that if they are having trouble in their jobs, it might be because they need to upgrade their essential skills. And our training systems have not yet fully embraced the idea that making sure that our graduates have these competencies will enhance their graduation rates and their overall success.

Yet, now you know. Perhaps together we can start to reduce the essential skills mismatches in our workforce. Canadian competitiveness and our personal success depend on it.

Janet Lane, Director, Canada West Foundation Centre for Human Capital Policy, became involved in the literacy and essential skills field after a successful career in the financial sector. Over the last 15 years, she has gained expertise in human capital development and a clear understanding of the economic impact of essential skills shortages. She strives through her policy research, writing and the convening of stakeholders to ensure that both workers and employers have the skills they need to prosper.

The statistics quoted in this article are taken from Smarten Up: It’s Time to Build Essential Skills, a report from the Canada West Foundation authored by Janet Lane and T. Scott Murray. This report is available for download on The links to the resources mentioned in the article are available in the online edition of Careering at

This entry was posted in Assessment.