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Konrad Yakabuski (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Konrad Yakabuski

(Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

KONRAD YAKABUSKI

Does Canada have the skills to pay the bills? Add to ...

If you really want to know how Canadians stack up in the global skills sweepstakes, don’t ask the education establishment. They tend to cherry-pick the data to highlight our relative strengths, but dance around the elephants in the room that threaten to trample our economic future.

That was clear this month when the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released the results of its debut ranking of adult competencies, measuring the literacy, numeracy and digital problem-solving skills of people between 16 and 65 in 24 OECD countries.

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The 466-page report contains enough slaps on Canada’s wrists to rid us of the illusion that the kids (if we can call our 16- to 24-year-olds that) are all right. While they’re pretty good with computers, they’re behind most of their peers in math skills. And despite having gone much further in school, they’re only somewhat more literate and numerate than their grandparents.

This is the opposite of what’s happened in countries such as South Korea, Germany and Finland. Older South Koreans are at the bottom of the skills heap, while their children and grandchildren are at or near the top, miles ahead of Canadians. South Korea’s transformation in little more than a generation contrasts with Canada’s stagnation. It may be why they’ve got Samsung and we’ve got BlackBerry.

So, how did the Canada’s Council of Ministers of Education greet the results? With a rosy press release trumpeting our computer prowess. The OECD report, the council boasted, “shows that Canadians are increasingly embracing information and communications technologies and are well positioned for the society and economy of the 21st century.”

That, quite frankly, is spin. The computer skills measured by the OECD were fairly basic. And while it’s good that at least half of young Canadian adults can navigate websites, it’s small consolation for the fact that so few of them rank at the top in math and literacy skills.

What’s more, the literacy and math skills of Canada’s 16- to 24-year-olds are well below those of the age cohort that preceded them in school. Combined with other recent evidence showing slippage in math scores, Canadians should be questioning whether our children are getting the educations they need and deserve.

One of the most eye-opening findings was that a university degree is no ticket to skillsdom. In Japan and the Netherlands, twentysomethings with only high-school diplomas “easily outperform” university-educated Spaniards. And while Canada has among the highest proportion of citizens with a tertiary education, they mostly underperform their peers elsewhere.

The OECD also singled out Canada for its weak performance in adult education. Continuous training is the norm in the Nordic countries. But in Canada, low-skilled adults tend to stay that way, “trapped in a situation where they rarely benefit from adult education and [where] their skills remain weak or deteriorate.”

And it’s not just older workers. More than 40 per cent of Canadians between 16 and 24 scored at the lowest levels of digital problem-solving.

On average, Canada outperforms the United States, where the polarization between the most- and least-skilled adults is glaring. But given its size, the U.S. still has tens of millions more high-skilled workers. To compete, Canada can’t simply content itself with beating the U.S. average.

The fallout from the OECD report has been at the top of the political agenda in Britain. That’s mainly because the OECD labelled England as the only jurisdiction where people on the cusp of retirement display outright higher math and literacy skills than those just entering the work force. Could there be a greater harbinger of economic decline?

Understandably, the report was a grenade in the lap of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, whose government swiftly heaped the blame for young Englanders’ substandard skills on predecessor Tony Blair. “These are Labour’s children,” Tory skills minister Matthew Hancock insisted, “educated under a Labour government and force-fed a diet of dumbing-down and low expectations.”

At least the Brits are talking about it. Not so in Canada, where the OECD report came and went with little notice. That’s too bad, because we need to have this debate.

Canada’s education system has successfully grappled with big challenges, accommodating a high proportion of immigrants and offering a chance at social mobility to the least-advantaged students. But the truth is, we’re falling behind in a world that’s racing rapidly ahead.

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