Workplace Essential Skills

Nine foundational skills every employee requires

What are Essential Skills?

Workplace essential skills are the nine foundational skills required for learning all other skills at work. They are:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Document use
  • Numeracy
  • Oral communication
  • Digital technology
  • Thinking
  • Working with others
  • Continuous learning

Essential skills are used in every task a worker performs. Workers use essential skills to complete simple tasks, such as filling out a form or giving a verbal update at a meeting, to more complex tasks, such as writing an operational plan with sophisticated computer software. Employees need essential skills in order to perform their current jobs competently and to learn new skills to advance in their careers.

Essential Skills Levels

Each essential skill has levels of complexity on a scale from 1 (most basic) to 5 (most advanced).

The complexity levels explain the skill needs in each occupation. Employment and Social Development Canada’s Essential Skills Profiles provide more details on the specific essential skills and complexity levels in over 350 occupations.

To link to the Essential Skills Profiles, go to the Working in Canada website:

Oral Communication Example

Civil Engineers rely on oral communication to do a good job. The examples below show how Civil Engineers increase the complexity of their oral communication skills depending on their job task.

Level 1:

Civil Engineers need to talk to suppliers and contractors about technical specifications. Ex. They may speak to a road building contractor about asphalt composition.

Level 2:

Civil Engineers discuss ongoing work with co-workers and colleagues. Ex. They assign tasks to workers and contractors, answer their questions and provide them with direction.

Level 3:

Civil Engineers need to present proposals, recommendations, designs and research findings to others. Ex. A structural engineer may present proposals, designs, schedules and budgets for the construction of a length of pipeline.

Level 4:

Civil Engineers may facilitate and lead public information sessions on the construction and repair of structures and systems related to highway and transportation services, water distribution and sanitation. Ex. A public works engineer may facilitate and lead a public information session on a bridge construction project.

Source for Essential Skill Profile information: Working in Canada website:

Why are Essential Skills important?

The nine essential skills enable Canadians to evolve with their jobs and adapt to workplace change. Today’s work world demands a broader range of skills with increasing degrees of complexity, even for the most basic employment. Employees who have completed grade school may find that the work world demands they use their skills far differently from what they did in school.

For example, reading in school and reading at work are not necessarily the same thing. Employees who were fluent readers at school may not be able to pick up a workplace document, quickly interpret the structure, find the needed information and then use that information properly.

Canada’s Essential Skills Needs

Even though Canada has a strong formal education system, “42% of the adult population - 9 million people - lack the reading and document use skills needed to meet the demands of today’s world.” That paradox is further explored in the Canadian Council on Learning’s 2007 report, The State of Learning in Canada...

“while this country apparently is home to one of the world’s most highly educated populations, more than four in 10 adults lack the reading and writing skills needed to thrive in a competitive global economy. Half, moreover, have serious trouble with numbers, and 55% may be jeopardizing their health because they are unable to instructions.”

Alberta’s Essential Skills Needs

Workplace literacy research provides a window into the essential skills needs in Alberta. In 2003, the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS) assessed the prose, document use, numeracy and problem solving skills of 23, 000 Canadians. Proficiency was rated on a complexity scale of 1 to 5, or lowest to highest. Western Canada had scores significantly higher than Central and Eastern Canada. The Yukon, with a higher working age population and numerous professionals, had the highest scores in Canada.

Although Alberta fared well, we have different literacy challenges from other provinces. Our projected employment growth will be concentrated in occupations that require high levels of literacy skills. Forecasts also suggest job losses will be in occupations requiring lower literacy skills.

Alberta’s skill needs are summarized in the table below, quoted from the 2010 report, Understanding the Literacy Market in Alberta, by T. Scott Murray of DataAngel Policy Research Incorporated.

46% of AlbertansOverall, 46% of employed Alberta workers are in literacy skill shortage. 18 Alberta industries function with 50% or more of their employees with literacy levels below that demanded by their jobs at peak level.
59% of ImmigrantsImmigrants may face a 16% higher risk of being in skill shortage than their non-immigrant peers. 
59% of SeniorsEmployed seniors aged 65 years of age and over face the highest risks of being in literacy skill shortage (59%).
44% of AboriginalsA large proportion, 44%, of employed aboriginal adults in Alberta are in skill shortage.
40% of YouthEmployed youth aged 16 to 24 face the lowest level of risk of being in shortage but over a third of this group (40%) are judged to be in shortage.

The Return on Investment (ROI) of Essential Skills

Research into literacy skills - reading, document use, numeracy and problem solving - reveals the ROI of increasing the essential skills of Canadians. The 2005 report, Public Investment in Skills: Are Canadian Governments Doing Enough?, by the C.D. Howe Institute, explains this:

  • For every 1% increase in literacy skills in a nation, economic productivity increases 2.5%, which results in a 1.5% permanent increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
  • For employees, it means more choices in the labour market.

Increasing workers’ skills means Canada will be more competitive in local, national and international markets.

ROI in Alberta

The 2010 report, Understanding the Literacy Market in Alberta, by T. Scott Murray of DataAngel Policy Research Incorporated, gives a clear picture of Alberta’s potential return on skills training:

  • The total estimated investment needed to eliminate literacy skill shortages in Alberta is $1.6 billion.
  • An investment of this magnitude is estimated to generate $9.7 billion in additional earnings per year, an amount that implies an overall annual rate of return on investment of over 500%.
  • Rates of return vary considerably by industry and occupation. True rates of return will depend on how long it takes to impart the necessary skill and the rates at which different industries and occupations are able to absorb the newly created skills.

Descriptions of the Nine Essential Skills

ReadingReading material in the form of sentences and paragraphs.Scanning and skimming for information. Critiquing and evaluating. Integrating information from multiple sources.
WritingWriting texts and writing in documents, on paper and on computer.Organizing, recording, documenting, persuading, requesting, justifying, analyzing and comparing.
Document UsePerforming tasks using a variety of information displays in which words, numbers, icons and other visual characteristics (e.g. line, colour, shape) have meaning through spatial arrangement. Documents can include forms, checklists, graphs, tables, signs, labels, drawings, blueprints, schematics, etc.Reading and interpreting documents in print or non-print (e.g. equipment gauges, clocks, computer screens). Often document use includes writing, completing or producing documents.
NumeracyUsing numbers and being able to think in quantitative terms.Money math. Scheduling, budgeting and accounting math. Measurement and calculation math. Data analysis math.
Digital TechnologyUsing different kinds of digital systems, applications and tools, and processing digital information.Sending emails. Using word processing software. Creating and modifying spreadsheets. Operating cash registers.
ThinkingUsing the six different types of interrelated cognitive functions.Problems solving. Decision making. Critical thinking. Job task planning and organizing. Significant use of memory. Finding information.
Oral CommunicationUsing speech to give and exchange thoughts and information.Interacting socially. Persuading. Giving and following instructions. Exchanging information.
Working with OthersThe degree to which a worker has to work independently or with others to achieve a job task.Working independently, with a partner, or as a team. Engaging in supervisory or other leadership activities.
Continuous LearningThe ability to participate in an ongoing process of acquiring skills and knowledge.Learning through regular work activities, from co-workers, or by accessing training on or off-site.

Adapted from: Employment and Social Development Canada: