New Brunswick Business Journal – Literacy, Technology and Hope

By: Larry Sampson, CEO New Brunswick Information Technology Council

There’s a slide in the province’s Pre-Budget Consultation presentation that’s pretty sobering – actually there were a number meeting that qualifier, but I’m homing in on this one. It came from “Understanding the Literacy Market in New Brunswick: A Segmentation Analysis” and showed supply and demand of differing literacy levels. The sobering part – while the supply of “average” literacy is about 80,000 employed workers, demand was north of 180,000. Roughly 160,000 employed workers in New Brunswick have low or very low literacy.

Imagine having literacy challenges and trying to earn a living in a society where increasingly, jobs and life involve the use of some form of computer. I’m also trying to get my head around what this means to employers. I’ve been beating the drum pretty hard regarding productivity and the need to take steps to improve it. It’s a lot easier to understand why it is what it is when you consider close to 50 per cent of the work-force in the province has a diminished ability to read and write. A lot of the enablers for productivity are technology driven, which takes us right back to the issue of literacy.

The good news is we appear to be growing out way out of this, as close to two-thirds of workers between 16 and 25 years old are at “average” literacy or higher. However, that likely is little solace to businesses who need skilled workers today, or those under-employed because of poor literacy.

I’ve written before about the supply challenges for information and communication technology (ICT) talent. According to the Information and Communication Technology Council, ICT unemployment is presently running at about three per cent – effectively full employment. What this and the provincial literacy numbers tell me is we need to get creative to meet demand.

And the good news? There are some very creative things going on, one of which is the Promise Partnership between UNBSJ and Hazen-White/St. Francis School. The program, which grew out of a community desire to find ways to help improve the level of educational attainment at the school, has been running since 2009. It involves UNBSJ students mentoring and tutoring those at Hazen-White/St. Francis on literacy and math skills, a free summer literacy camp at UNBSJ, and Campus Discovery nights to engage the students in the field of science.

Tackling the supply challenge from a slightly different angle is Mitacs, a national not-for-profit research organization whose mandate is to help develop the next generation of innovators. One of their programs, Globalink, brings top undergraduate students from around the world to UNB to undertake a research project under the supervision of faculty there. The students also get business and entrepreneurship training. Over the past two years, 14 students from top schools in India have spent the bulk of the summer in Fredericton, meeting with faculty, business leaders and working on their research projects.

My own organization, the New Brunswick Information Technology Council, guarantees high school graduates jobs through its Class of 2011 initiative, with the provision they complete an ICT post-secondary degree or diploma.

These types of undertakings are important not just to the students participating, but for our society as a whole. Literacy and numeracy have always been table stakes for progress, and our ability to care for ourselves, and our own, is directly related to them. While the students participating in Globalink, the Class of 2011, and the Promise Partnership may come from different cultures and backgrounds, they all represent hope – which is an encouraging counter-point to all the doom and gloom the numbers portray.

Because where would we be without hope.