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One-fifth of Australian adults have limited literacy and numeracy

Pallavi Singhal reports in the Sydney Morning Herald, February 15, 2019. Originally published in SMH.

More than 20 per cent of Australian adults have very low literacy, numeracy and digital problem-solving skills and are the least likely groups to be engaging in adult education programs to reskill and upskill for a changing workforce. 

"More than one in five Australians can at most complete very simple reading or mathematical tasks, such as reading brief texts on familiar topics or understanding basic percentages," a new report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has found.

More than one in five Australians can at most complete very simple reading or mathematical tasks, an OECD report says.

"Upskilling them will be crucial to maintaining and increasing Australia's competitiveness."

Adults with low skill levels are far less likely to participate in education and training than those with high-level skills. Only 23 per cent of low-skilled Australian adults are engaged in education, compared with 48 per cent of all adults.

The findings come at a time of widespread changes in job markets across the world, with about 32 per cent of the jobs analysed across 32 OECD countries likely to change significantly and another 14 per cent to potentially become fully automated, the report says.

Angela Knox, an associate professor of work and organisational studies at the University of Sydney, said that lowest- and highest-level jobs were likely to remain while middle-level jobs were likely to disappear, creating more structural inequalities.

"It's the jobs in the middle, which used to give a lot of workers who didn't have many skills the opportunity to get into the workforce in large firms and have the opportunity to progress into managerial positions, that will disappear," she said.

"These are also the jobs that were permanent, as opposed to many low-paying jobs that are casual or temporary, and gave people financial security."

The report also notes that workers employed in small- or medium-sized enterprises are 15 percentage points less likely to take part in adult education than workers in large firms.

Unemployed groups are among the least likely to participate, at an average rate that is 19 per cent lower than employed adults across the OECD.

The main barriers for participation in adult education programs include a shortage of time because of work-related reasons, followed by a lack of financial resources, family-related time pressures and inconvenient time or place, the report finds.

Associate Professor Knox said the government needed to do more to address the barriers that disproportionately affect already disadvantaged groups.

"What's missing in this debate is that we can control the future of work," she said.

"There's a role for governments and other bodies in developing the technology and policies to control the future of work and shape it into what we identify as being desirable. We don't just have to sit back and wait."

Australia has a relatively low urgency in skill challenges compared with other countries and is performing well in measures of the alignment of adult learning programs to labour market, the extent of participation, the inclusiveness of programs and their financing, the OECD report says.

Middle-level jobs will disappear while the lowest and highest-skilled jobs will expand, Associate Professor Angela Knox said.

Middle-level jobs will disappear while the lowest and highest-skilled jobs will expand, Associate Professor Angela Knox said.Credit:Nic Walker

Only Norway and New Zealand have lower levels of urgency for reskilling than Australia, while Portugal, Lithuania, Spain, Latvia and Greece have the highest levels of urgency due to the nature of their main industries.

However, Australia is ranked among the bottom third of countries for the flexibility of its programs, with 11 per cent of adult learners undertaking a distance program, compared with the OECD average of 19 per cent.

John Buchanan, the head of discipline of business analytics at the University of Sydney, who co-authored a major report on the future of work and education for the NSW Department of Education last year, said governments needed to find ways to address the barriers affecting participation in further education.

"We have got to talk about funded career breaks and support for education," Professor Buchanan said.

"It's not that adults are lazy - Australian workers are more productive than they've ever been - but most of the gains of that have gone to businesses. We have to look at how we give people the wherewithal to participate, which is not an abstract concept, it's what the Danes and Norwegians do."


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