The nine essential skills

Nine essential skills every employee requires

Workplace essential skills are the nine foundational skills required for learning all other skills at work. They are:

Reading Writing Document use
Numeracy Oral communication Digital technology
Thinking Working with others Continuous learning

Essential skills are used in every task a worker performs. Workers use essential skills to complete simple tasks, such as filling out a form or giving a verbal update at a meeting, to more complex tasks, such as writing an operational plan with sophisticated computer software. Employees need essential skills in order to perform their current jobs competently and to learn new skills to advance in their careers.

Descriptions of the nine essential skills

Reading Reading material in the form of sentences and paragraphs. Scanning and skimming for information. Critiquing and evaluating. Integrating information from multiple sources.
Writing Writing texts and writing in documents, on paper and on computer. Organizing, recording, documenting, persuading, requesting, justifying, analyzing and comparing.
Document Use Performing tasks using a variety of information displays in which words, numbers, icons and other visual characteristics (e.g. line, colour, shape) have meaning through spatial arrangement. Documents can include forms, checklists, graphs, tables, signs, labels, drawings, blueprints, schematics, etc. Reading and interpreting documents in print or non-print (e.g. equipment gauges, clocks, computer screens). Often document use includes writing, completing or producing documents.
Numeracy Using numbers and being able to think in quantitative terms. Money math. Scheduling, budgeting and accounting math. Measurement and calculation math. Data analysis math.
Digital Technology Using different kinds of digital systems, applications and tools, and processing digital information. Sending emails. Using word processing software. Creating and modifying spreadsheets. Operating cash registers.
Thinking Using the six different types of interrelated cognitive functions. Problems solving. Decision making. Critical thinking. Job task planning and organizing. Significant use of memory. Finding information.
Oral Communication Using speech to give and exchange thoughts and information. Interacting socially. Persuading. Giving and following instructions. Exchanging information.
Working with Others The degree to which a worker has to work independently or with others to achieve a job task. Working independently, with a partner, or as a team. Engaging in supervisory or other leadership activities.
Continuous Learning The ability to participate in an ongoing process of acquiring skills and knowledge. Learning through regular work activities, from co-workers, or by accessing training on or off-site.

Adapted from: Employment and Social Development Canada:  

Why are essential skills important?

Canada’s essential skills’ needs
The nine essential skills enable Canadians to evolve with their jobs and adapt to workplace change. Today’s work world demands a broader range of skills with increasing degrees of complexity, even for the most basic employment. Employees who have completed grade school may find that the work world demands they use their skills far differently from what they did in school.

For example, reading in school and reading at work are not necessarily the same thing. Employees who were fluent readers at school may not be able to pick up a workplace document, quickly interpret the structure, find the needed information and then use that information properly.

Even though Canada has a strong formal education system, “42% of the adult population – 9 million people – lack the reading and document use skills needed to meet the demands of today’s world.” That paradox is further explored in the Canadian Council on Learning’s 2007 report, The State of Learning in Canada indicates:

“while this country apparently is home to one of the world’s most highly educated populations, more than four in 10 adults lack the reading and writing skills needed to thrive in a competitive global economy. Half, moreover, have serious trouble with numbers, and 55% may be jeopardizing their health because they are unable to understand…safety instructions.”

The Return on Investment (ROI) of essential skills

Research into literacy skills – reading, document use, numeracy and problem solving – reveals the ROI of increasing the essential skills of Canadians. The 2005 report, Public Investment in Skills: Are Canadian Governments Doing Enough?, by the C.D. Howe Institute, explains this:

  • For every 1% increase in literacy skills in a nation, economic productivity increases 2.5%, which results in a 1.5% permanent increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
  • For employees, it means more choices in the labour market.

Increasing workers’ skills means Canada will be more competitive in local, national and international markets.

Essential Skills Levels

Each essential skill has levels of complexity on a scale from 1 (most basic) to 5 (most advanced). Employment and Social Development Canada’s Essential Skills Profiles provide details on the specific essential skills and complexity levels in over 350 occupations. The complexity levels explain the skill needs in each occupation.

The following chart gives examples of what complexity levels look like in a broad range of occupations. Because essential skills are the skills required for all occupations you will see that many of the tasks are those done in many occupations.

Level 1 Level 2 Level 3 Level 4/5
Reading Manufacturing assemblers and inspectors read notes from their supervisor to receive instructions on such matters as procedural changes and run quantities. Tilesetters read safety-related information, e.g., read Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) to learn how to safely handle products used to seal tile and grout. Letter carriers refer to manuals outlining procedures for completing forms or working with super boxes. Flight Attendants read regulations issued by organizations, such as Transport Canada, to learn the practices and protocols that govern their actions in emergency situations.
Document Use Truck drivers fill in drivers’ checklists, verifying the safety of various parts of the truck. Estheticians, electrologists and workers in related occupations may read equipment catalogues when purchasing new equipment. Boat operators read tide tables to know whether the tide is ebbing or rising and to determine the depth of tide waters at particular times. Water and waste plant operators synthesize data from multiple forms, tables, charts and graphs in analysing the performance of control systems and equipment to diagnose and correct problems, such as leaking pipes.
Writing Couriers write short notes to themselves recording changes to delivery routes. Computer salespersons write short letters to customers making quotes on hardware and software choices. RCMP constables prepare information for search warrants. Switchboard operators may write evaluations of a number of phone systems and, drawing on their experience, make recommendations to management for purchase options.
Numeracy Hairstylists measure amounts of fluids such as colouring solutions, peroxides and disinfectants using graduated beakers and tubes. Woodworking machine operators calculate board feet for orders which do not meet standard specifications. Heavy equipment operators may calculate the slope ratios of construction projects, such as ditches, culverts and roadways. Plumbers calculate rolling offsets to design, fabricate and install piping around obstacles.
Oral Communication Line cooks may encounter problems caused by miscommunication due to their noisy working environment. They must then clarify the information. Early Child educators teach children and guide them through learning activities, e.g. teach concepts and themes, such as the alphabet, counting, colours, weather, animals and the seasons. Hotel front desk clerks may discuss details of incidents involving hostile customers and thefts with security personnel and police officers. Police officers give clear and concise verbal instructions to control the actions of others.
Thinking Furniture assemblers refer to sketches and specifications of furniture to clarify assembly instructions. Food and beverage severs decide if customers have consumed too much alcohol and, if so, suspend service to those customers. Roofers evaluate the safety of work areas. If they fail to adequately assess safety hazards, workers’ injuries or deaths can occur. Social workers decide to call emergency services for assistance. They consider the safety risks to clients and others by violent and suicidal behaviours.
Digital Technology Sheet metal workers Operate computer numerically-controlled equipment by programming specifications for cutting speeds and depths, cut lengths and bend angles. Cashiers may use financial software to produce sales reports and transaction summaries. Ticket agents may produce tables showing profitability of various types of sales. Electronic service technician may use a wide variety of diagnostic, benchmarking and utility software applications to configure, load and execute computer programs,
Working with Others Working with Others examines the extent to which employees work with others to carry out their tasks. Do they have to work co-operatively with others? Do they have to have the self-discipline to meet work targets while working alone? The size of the organization can greatly affect the complexity of working with others.
Continuous Learning Continuous learning examines the requirement for workers in an occupational group to participate in an ongoing process of acquiring skills and knowledge.

To link to the Essential Skills Profiles, go to the Working in Canada website: