I rarely dip my toes into areas that I haven’t spent much time looking at but it’s a slow news day so I’ll take a quick stab at literacy. There’s a good op/ed today in the Victoria Star cheekily titled “Be literate in this place” (they had to know going in that this would be parodied more than any other possible slogan). Here is the soup bone quote:
Premier Shawn Graham and his Liberal government swept into power in 2006 on a pledge to lead New Brunswick into self-sufficiency. But this goal will never be achieved when many New Brunswickers lack the ability to get a job in today’s complex market. Even our traditional industries of farming and forestry require workers to have increasingly specialized skills to succeed in these areas.
Now, let’s deconstruct this a bit. I have always felt that if you want a more literate population, there needs to be a reason to read. You can try to teach people how to read but if they don’t read – they won’t be literate.
Why do people need to read? The op/ed piece rightly points out that an increasing number of jobs require literacy. However, I think we can test the assumption that New Brunswick’s jobs require literacy.
We have over 100,000 people collecting EI each year. I don’t have the numbers in front of me but about 70,000 of them collect EI as a seasonal top up when they are not working at some point during the year. How many seasonal jobs require serious literacy? Fish plants? Fishing? Wood workers? Most kinds of tourism-jobs? Certainly literacy would help in many of these jobs but it is not a prerequisite.
The point is that I would test the assumption that you need to be ‘literate’ for many of New Brunswick’s jobs. If that was the case, people would be more literate. I realize this is a chicken and egg discussion but ultimately if you want a literate workforce we will need to have an overwhelming percentage of jobs that require literacy.
Of course, literacy is not only a work issue. There are a wide variety of ways being literate helps us in broader society. So if we assume that a workforce transformation is an evolutionary process, we could do more to encourage literacy because of its importance outside of work. A long, long time ago when I was at NBTel, there was an idea floating around to bundle a small computer into the monthly payment for telephone service (like the telephone itself was bundled in). I think there were some attempts but minimal to do this. Old Camille Theriault gave people a tax break to buy a computer. Those days are long gone. Nowadays we build infrastructure and then cross our fingers.
New Brunswick has I think the lowest rate (or the second lowest rate of computer usage) in Canada. We also have the highest rate of TV viewing in Canada. In Restigouche almost 50% of adults watch TV more than 15 hours a week compared to 29% across the country. You don’t need to be literate to watch “So you think you can dance, Canada?”.
Maybe we revise the old plan of a computer in every home (not subsidized by the taxpayer but maybe with a tax break) and then we build a few compelling apps. and provide the training for folks who need it.
I heard a podcast recently that old Chavez in Venezuela is giving away books for almost nothing – and huge numbers of Venezuelans are buying them. Of course, Chavez is screening the books and providing an 80% reduction in price for books that he likes – which is a weird moment to be sure – but in the end hundreds of thousands of people are reading more books.
Give people a reason to read and they will read.
Just a thought.