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Basic skills - use them or lose them

| By Berit Kvam

The results from the first ever Nordic PIAAC report are both exciting and frightening. It shows a surprising number of people have such poor basic skills that it affects their chances in working and public life, and it does not improve with age either.

It has been some years since the Nordic Labour Journal covered this problem for the first time, when we wrote about transport workers who did not get information about changes to their working conditions during a major reorganisation. Because the workers rarely met and worked alone much of the time, all the information going out was printed. It turned out that a surprising number of the drivers could not read and understand printed information. This was serious because it concerned a major reorganisation which all employees needed to know about. The company therefore put a lot of effort into staging information meetings to talk to people directly. It also introduced basic skills training to those with poor literacy skills. It was moving to hear from grown men that this was a secret they had been carrying, and that they now for the first time were able to read aloud for their grandchildren. 

It will soon be impossible to get by in working life with poor literacy and numeracy skills. The Nordic PIAAC survey shows that up to ten percent of 16 to 65 year olds in Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Estonia have poor literacy and numeracy skills and the group is over-represented amongst people with poor problem solving skills using computers, using email or getting access to public information. In other words, they are vulnerable and might get excluded from working and public life. 

Poor skills are often the result of a poor basic education, but it turns out weak basic skills can be found in all walks of life and in all age groups. If you do not put effort into further development, if you do not read and practice, your skills will deteriorate with age. When some two million people suffer from poor skills, the problem is too large for society to sort out all in one go. What we need to do, says Danish Anders Rosdahl, is to try to find and help people where they are.

It is frightening when so many are in danger of loosing out because of lacking basic skills, but the Nordic PIAAC survey also shows that there are exciting opportunities for individuals and society as a whole if we are willing to put an effort into further development.


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