International Workforce Literacy Review: Australia
Background information on the context for workforce literacy
Country workforce demographics and projections
As at February 2007 the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) estimated Australia’s population at about 20,700,000.
The following table shows the population proportions at ages 0–4, 15–4 and over 65 in 1954 (when the population was less than 10 million), in 2004 (population 20 million) and a projection to 2050/51, when the population will be in the range 23 to 31 million (depending on a series of assumptions).
|Year||Age range||Proportion of population|
27 (including 6% over 85)
Source: Derived from ABS 3222.0 Population Projections, Australia, 2004 to 2101
This table shows the significant decline expected in the working-age population over the next few decades, and the projected doubling of the 65 and over group. The ramifications of this likely trend are manifold and will include education, training and adult literacy.
Immigration patterns and volumes
Immigration is an important component of Australia's population growth. Approximately 5.7 million immigrants have arrived in Australia since the end of the Second World War. Together with their descendants they have contributed more than 40% of population growth since then. Immigration has also brought changes to Australia's population composition. Over the past 50 years, Australia's population has changed from one where over 90% of the population were of British origin to the current multicultural society, in which about 30% are non-Anglo-Celtic, coming from a range of countries in Europe, Asia and Africa. This increase in diversity began in the 1950s with immigration from the countries of Southern and Eastern Europe and continued in the last 30 years with the ending of the 'White Australia' policy and the influx of Asian migration after the Vietnam War.
An analysis of 2007 ABS Yearbook data reveals that:
- of Australia’s 20 million population at 2004, 24%, or 4.5 million were overseas born. That includes 1.1 million from the United Kingdom, 442,000 from New Zealand, 227,000 from Italy, 182,000 from China, 176,000 from Vietnam, 128,000 from Greece and 128,000 from India.
- in 2004–05, 123,400 people arrived in Australia intending to settle, the majority of whom (70%) arrived as part of the Migration Program.
- of Migration Program arrivals, most arrived under the skilled migration category (43% of all permanent arrivals), while 27% of all permanent arrivals arrived under the family migration category. A further 11% of all permanent arrivals arrived as part of the Humanitarian Program, while 18% were eligible to settle in Australia because of their New Zealand citizenship.
- of skilled migrants arriving in 2004–05 (53,100), 29% came from Europe (85% of whom were from United Kingdom and Ireland), while 19% came from southern Asia and 17% from north-east Asia. South-east Asia contributed 16% and sub-Saharan Africa contributed 10% of skilled immigrants to Australia during 2004-05.
- in 2004-05, 27% of settlers (33,200) came as part of the family component of Australia’s immigration program. The major country of birth regions were Europe (23%), south-east Asia (22%), north-east Asia (18%), southern Asia (10%) and north Africa and the Middle East (9%).
- of the 13,200 settlers arriving under the Humanitarian Program, the highest proportion were born in north Africa and the Middle East (61%), followed by sub-Saharan Africa (28%) and central Asia (6%).
- in addition to the 99,700 settler arrivals under the Migration and Humanitarian Programs during 2004–05, there were a further 23,700 non-program (i.e. non-visaed) arrivals.
Traditionally, non-program migrants are predominantly New Zealand citizens; they accounted for 94% of non-program migrants in 2004–05. Under the Trans-Tasman Agreement, New Zealand citizens are free to enter Australia without applying for a visa.
Source: ABS 1303.0-Year Book, Australia, 2007
There has been significant media attention and public debate in recent times about the degree to which migrants or refugees should be competent in English language on arrival. In September 2006 John Howard announced he was considering introducing an English language test and and Australian values test for those seeking Australian citizenship. However, he denied that it would be a return to the type of exclusionary tests of the White Australia policy. 
The Survey of Aspects of Literacy (see below) showed a strong correlation between literacy levels and English as a first language. Those who spoke a language other than English and arrived in Australia after the age of 16 were significantly more likely to have lower levels of literacy (SAL, 1996). There is significant challenge in providing programmes for migrants that gives them not only language acquisition but also opportunities to learn how to apply language and literacy practices for a range of purposes.
This indicates the need to provide learners from a non-English speaking background with linked programmes that tackle literacy from a number of fronts—as a component of language acquisition (English language services), and as a social practice learned in different contexts over time (community and workplace learning options). Research into participation and completion rates of VET qualifications by students from a non-English speaking background indicated dissatisfaction with ‘language’ only VET Multi-field courses and the clear preference for integrated language and vocational skill options (Miralles, 2003:NCVER).
Currently, the Adult Migrant English Program (see 4.5 below) is the main English tuition programme provided to migrants without functional English. This program is currently under review , as employers in particular have called for it to provide more targeted vocational outcomes. If this change were made in the intent of the program it would have important consequences for the delivery of English language training and its assessment. Although there are arguments about the best ways to address the language, literacy and numeracy needs of the population, it is generally acknowledged by all political parties that strong literacy skills are ‘fundamental to people’s adaptability and flexibility in the new information economy, and crucial for improving their employment and income prospects and reducing the risk of becoming economically disadvantaged’ (Shalla and Schellenberg, 1998:9 cited in Hagston, 2002).
Employment rates and patterns
ABS figures for May 2007 show the number of employed persons at 10,432,000 with unemployed people at 472,000 or 4.4%. The participation rate was at 64.9%.
Source: ABS 6202.0—Labour Force, Australia, May 2007
The trend estimate of employed persons rose from 8,414,000 in February 1997 to 9,056,100 in September 2000. The trend then fell slightly to 9,037,900 in January 2001, before generally rising to stand at a high of 10,350,400 in February 2007.
The trend estimate of unemployed persons generally fell from 771,700 in February 1997 to 583,700 in September 2000, before rising to 685,700 in October 2001. The trend then fell to 532,800 in January 2005, remained relatively stable for 18 months, before falling to stand at 495,900 in February 2007.
The trend unemployment rate generally fell from 8.4% in February 1997 to 6.1% in September 2000. After rising to 7.0% in October 2001, the trend fell to 5.1% in July 2005. After remaining steady for 18 months, the trend has fallen to stand at 4.6% in February 2007.
Source: ABS 6202.0—Labour Force, Australia, Feb 2007.
In relation to persons not in the workforce, the ABS found the following:
In September 2005, there were 5,453,500 people aged 15 years and over who were not in the labour force. This represented 34% of the civilian population aged 15 years and over. Just under one-quarter (21%) of persons not in the labour force wanted to work and 61% of persons not in the labour force were women.
The proportion of people who were not in the labour force varied according to age. In the 15–19 years age group, where there are high levels of participation in education, the proportion was 41% for men and 38% for women. In all other age groups, there were more women than men not in the labour force. The proportion of women not in the labour force decreased from 27% for those aged 25–34 years to 23% for those aged 45–54 years, before increasing sharply to 43% for those aged 55–59 years, and 98% for those aged 70 years and over. For men in the same age groups, the proportion not in the labour force increased from 7% for those aged 25–34 and 35–44 years, to 11% for those aged 45–54 years, 24% for those aged 55–59 years, and 93% for those aged 70 years and over.
Source: ABS 6222.0 Persons not in the Labour Force, Australia September 2005
Generally speaking the Australian economy has performed very well recently in relation to the generation of jobs, although we have not yet discovered ways and means of providing people with a marginal attachment to the workforce with the technical, and probably literacy skills, they need.
Growth industries and industries in decline
Unpublished and published ABS data which enables comparisons between employment on an industry basis over a 20-year period (November 1984 to August 2005) and comparisons of production on an industry basis measured in $A over a 10-year period (1994/5 and 2004/5) can be summarised as follows:
Three industries—property and business services, retail trade, and manufacturing—represent almost half of total employment in 2005.
Comparing employment changes over the period 1984 to 2005 with production in 1994/5 to 2004/5 gives an indication of productivity changes in Australian industry. For example, employment in agriculture, forestry and fishing declined over the 20-year period but experienced a significant increase in production over 1994/5 to 2004/5. A similar pattern emerges with manufacturing, and electricity, gas and water supply.
A number of industries experienced both significant increases in employment and production over the periods. For example, mining, construction, retail trades, transport and storage, and accommodation, cafes and restaurants.
Communication and services, and finance and insurance exhibited modest employment growth but very significant production increases.
Source: Unpublished ABS data on total employment by industry, ABS 1309.0, Australia at a Glance 2007
These data show that while there have been significant shifts in employment between industries, all have grown in employment terms to a lesser or greater extent over a 20-year period, but there are very significant differences in production outcomes over the last 10 years. Productivity improvements are a notable feature of many of these industries, but have certainly not resulted in increases in unemployment as the May 2007 figures above show.
Population literacy statistics
In June 1996 there were 8,365,000 employed persons and 745,500 unemployed (8.2% of the workforce).
Source: 6202.0 Labour Force, Australia, June 2006, ABS
The International Adult Literacy Survey carried out in 1996, and released as an analysis of data in the Survey of Aspects of Literacy, resulted in the statement that: ‘while many adult Australians have extremely good skills, there are over 6 million (47%) who do not have the skills to cope with the literacy demands of everyday life and work.’ (SAL, 1996)
|1.1 NUMBER AND PROPORTION AT EACH SKILL LEVEL|
|Prose scale||Document scale||Quantitative scale|
|Total||13 200.8||100.0||13 200.8||100.0||13 200.8||100.0|
Source: (4228.0 - Aspects of Literacy: Assessed Skill Levels, Australia, 1996)
The skill level distribution of people aged 15–74 was similar on each of the prose, document and quantitative literacy scales. About 2.6 million people had very poor skills (level 1) and could be expected to experience considerable difficulties in using many of the printed materials that may be encountered in daily life. About 3.6 million were at level 2, and could be expected to experience some difficulties in using many of the printed materials that may be encountered in daily life. Level 3 was the largest category, and the skills of the 4.8 million people at this level would enable them to cope with many printed materials found in daily life and at work, though not always with a high level of proficiency. Some 2.0 million people were at level 4, representing good skills, and a relatively small number (300,000) were at level 5, representing very good skills. People at both level 4 and level 5 are considered capable of managing the literacy demands of everyday life.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander statistics
The SAL yielded some estimates for people who were of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin (indigenous peoples), but the data was criticised heavily as it excluded remote and sparsely settled areas from the SAL sample. This meant that an estimated one-quarter of indigenous peoples, who lived in such areas, did not have a chance of being selected in the survey. As the English literacy skills of this group were estimated to differ widely from the skills of those Indigenous peoples living in urban areas, the results could only be used as an indicator of the literacy skill levels of the total Indigenous population. 
Significantly, greater proportions of Indigenous peoples were at low literacy levels compared with other people who spoke English as their first language, and their skills showed more variation across the three scales. Some 41% were at Level 1 on the prose scale, 45% were at Level 1 on the document scale, and 47% were at Level 1 on the quantitative scale.
Different levels of educational attainment may explain these results to some extent. Some 62% of Indigenous peoples did not complete the highest level of secondary school (the corresponding proportion for other people whose first language was English was 36%).
Although indigenous education and literacy have been issues of much debate over several decades, the Commonwealth government did not elect to fund a specific extension project to the 2006 Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey (ALLS) that would have produced a larger and broader sample of indigenous respondents, and therefore more valid data.
The lack of specific attention to indigenous adult language and literacy has disappointed many in the adult language and literacy field, who believe that the ALLS could have provided important and significant data about this group of Australians and the platform for refreshed policy development.
Australian’s perceptions of their skills
‘People overestimate their literacy abilities and many adults with poor skills see themselves as having adequate skills for life and work.’ (Hagston 2002: 36)
It is of interest to note that the Australian Survey of Aspects of Literacy found that people's self-rating of their skill level decreased as age increased; in particular, a higher proportion of people aged 55 and over rated their skills as moderate or poor. Compared to actual findings of the survey Australians tended to over-rate their skills.
Findings of the survey found that of 9.6 million workers, 90% rated their reading skills for the needs of their job as excellent or good and 86% rated their writing skills for the needs of their job the same way.
Hagston’s analysis of Australian data shows that, in addition to serious overestimations of their existing skills, many Australians do not realise that they need to use their literacy skills or risk losing them. This is extremely problematic when combined with findings by O’Neill et al (2001: 59) that found ‘Employers were significantly less positive about their employee’s English language and literacy skills than the employees themselves.’ There is a significant risk therefore that those with the weakest skills are likely to ignore or resist the need for skills development whilst being judged harshly by employers for their lack of skills. This is confirmed in Dr Larry Smith’s research (2001:5) that found that ‘many employers have unreasonable/unrealistic expectations of what is a reasonable level of performance for persons in training’.
Labour force statistics
There was a clear relationship between literacy skill level and labour force status. Depending on the literacy scale, 11% to 12% of employed people were at level 1. The corresponding percentages for unemployed people were 30% to 31%, and for those who were not in the labour force, the proportions were even larger.
The proportions at level 2 within each labour force category were similar, but significantly larger proportions of employed people were at levels 3 and 4/5, compared with unemployed people and those not in the labour force.
Figure 3.2: Proportion At Each Level, By Labour Force Status - Prose Scale
|Industry||Prose Scale||Document Scale||Quantitative Scale|
|Agriculture, forestry and fishing||274||277||283|
|Electricity, gas and water supply||276||288||293|
|Accommodation, cafes and restaurants||284||286||280|
|Transport and storage||288||88||296|
|Finance and insurance services||306||303||312|
|Property and business services||302||301||308|
|Government administration and defence||306||305||311|
|Health and community services||305||294||293|
|Cultural and recreational services||296||298||301|
|Personal and other services||281||286||288|
In the 17 broad industry groups the largest proportions of employed people were usually at level 3. The exceptions to this were, on the prose scale:
- education, which had a larger proportion at level 4/5
- construction, which had a similar proportion at level 2
- communication services which had marginally larger proportions at levels 2 and 4/5.
Education had the largest proportion of employed people at level 4/5, with 50% at this level on the prose scale, 44% at this level on the document scale, and 43% at this level on the quantitative scale. Depending on the scale, this was between 7 and 15 percentage points higher than any other industry.
The industries with the largest proportions at Level 1 were:
- forestry and fishing
- electricity, gas and water supply
In these industries the proportions at this level were 19% to 22% on the prose scale, 17% to 19% on the document scale, and 15% to 19% on the quantitative scale.
Analysis of the figures at the time contended that many of the people in work with this level of skill would have difficulty with many literacy tasks taken for granted within the workforce. These include:
- completing non-routine aspects of safety audits
- following written safety procedures especially in new situations
- completing an incident report and reading the minutes of safety meetings.
The analysis of data also proposed that the introduction of new policies and industrial legislation and new quality-assurance work practices would increase the demand on employees to read, understand and use complex documents, and to gather and record information. The analysis cautioned that seeking people with higher education to carry out the tasks usually done by level 1 and 2 employees would not be a successful strategy unless the wage rates and career prospects of the jobs were enhanced.
While no direct action has been taken by industry and governments to address these issues, to some extent they would have been considered in the development of national training packages (see below).
Emerging lessons from SAL
In the 10 years since the 1996 survey, workplace changes such as multiskilling and the introduction of hi-tech machinery have occurred, bringing the anticipated higher literacy demands because of greater dependence on print for compliance. In some cases, job re-design was a solution to take into account the low literacy levels of some employees and ensure that the literacy tasks required on the job were within their reach. But the main policy solution to emerge for Australia was the acknowledgement by McLennan in Aspects of Literacy that there was a need:
…to develop the literacy skills further through job-related training. To do this, the workplace literacy tasks must be recognised as core workplace competencies so that they will be incorporated into industry-based training packages. (p72 SAL)
Surprisingly, the issue that directly accompanied this policy suggestion is one that has remained a constant challenge for the Australian VET system:
Moves to enterprise-based training need to acknowledge the level of literacy skill of such a significant proportion of the workforce who may be asked to assist in training apprentices. While they may have excellent practical skills and knowledge of the enterprise, Level 1 and 2 employees are likely to have difficulty understanding training materials and assessment tasks unless the terminology is highly familiar, relevant and concrete. (P72)
Building the capacity of our training and assessment system and the professional development of specialist and generalist vocational and language and literacy teachers is still a major unresolved challenge today.
Despite posing serious challenges, the survey did result in Australia committing to two key solutions to dealing with adult literacy
the integrated approach to literacy in industry competency standards (what was to eventually become the ‘built-in not bolted-on’ policy)
the continuation of bipartisan support for the Workplace English Language and Literacy programme (WELL) as the key nationally funded workplace initiative.
ALLS 2006—What will be the new lessons?
Australia took part in the Adult literacy and Life Skills survey second round in 2006. The survey was conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and funded by a number of Commonwealth Departments.
Australian ALLS data will be available from late October 2007 with the summary publication due to be released 30 October.
It is anticipated that Australia may find (as did Canada) that although there had been a decrease in low-level skills there had also been a decrease in high-level skills and that the population was pooling at level 3.
|Prose scale||Survey year||level 1||level 2||level 3||level 4/5|
Source: NCVER Breakfast briefings Exhibit 5 International adult literacy survey components and results – 1996 and 2006
|Document scale||Survey year||level 1||level 2||level 3||level 4/5|
Source: NCVER Breakfast briefings Exhibit 5 International adult literacy survey components and results – 1996 and 2006
Given the ageing population and shifts in employment statistics it remains to be seen whether Australia will see an improvement in its overall skills or a similar middle-band increase to Canada. Ten years ago, in June 1996, there were 8,365,000 employed persons and 745,500 unemployed (8.2% of the workforce) . Whereas today there are only 4.4% unemployed.
The Survey of Adult Literacy showed that the literacy skills of all employees are strengthened and developed in workplaces where a considerable amount of reading, writing and numeracy occurs. Those who don’t have the opportunity to interact with literacy materials in the workplace are more likely to have lower levels of literacy. Little opportunity to practice skills at work increases the probability of staying at the lowest level (Hagston 2001:39).
It will be of interest to see if more people operating from within the workforce has increased the overall skill levels, or whether similar bands of low-level skills will still be apparent within the labour force statistics.
The release of ALLS data will be a valuable opportunity to reflect upon and analyse Australia’s policy and provision efforts over the last ten years. Interestingly Australia is in an election year (just as it was in 1996). This means that data-release will coincide with either a 10-year anniversary for the current government if they win the election, or a potential new government. Depending on the outcome of the survey, and depending on the outcome of the election, we may find that the ALLS data-release provides a platform for renewed interest and energy around adult literacy, or it may be ‘buried’ in order to save face. It will be important for the adult language and literacy field, interested research bodies and community and industry organisations to maintain an interest in the results in any case to mitigate against the latter.
Drivers for workforce literacy
The Australian national context of workplace reform and restructuring towards a more internationally competitive and productive position has had significant consequences for employees. Restructuring has resulted in leaner organisations requiring a different approach to work. Participative workplace practices and multiskilling are two of those differences. (Baylis, 1995, p.10).
There have been a number of significant changes in the shape and structure of the Australian economy over the last 25 years.
Some of these changes can be gleaned from the employment and production analysis in 2.4 above, which indicates sectors of employment and productivity growth.
In addition to these changes there have also been a number of developments, which, taken together, can be said to have the effect of requiring not only different workplace skills, but also higher workplace skills. The basis of many of these new or higher order skills is literacy.
In summary the major drivers for workplace literacy include:
- structural changes in the economy, such as a competitive environment with the decline in the incidence of tariff protection and the opening up of the Australian economy in the early 1980’s
- structural changes in the workforce, such as increasing numbers of part-time and casual workers, and lower proportions of unskilled workers
- the evolution of what is termed the knowledge economy, which provides a competitive advantage to enterprises which transform data and information into valued knowledge, processes and applications in the global and domestic market place
- over the last three decades stronger legislative obligations placed upon enterprises such as occupational health and safety and other reporting and compliance requirements
- the application of a standards-based approach to business operations, such as the ISO series which require documentation of business processes, some of which may have been implied or ‘tacit’ in the past
- the revolutionary effect of information and communication technologies as a powerful tool in the operation of all enterprises, large or small, public or private.
Consideration of the skills required by workers to cope with the rapid changes in the new, increasingly technologically-driven, economy has led to a concentration not only on information technology (IT) and job-specific skills but also on what are often dubbed ‘generic’ or, in Australia, ‘employability’ skills.
The overall impact of these developments in the Australian economy over the last 25 years has been to increase the focus on the individual’s employability skills as well as their technical competence. Skills such as the ability to work in teams, the capacity to communicate effectively and efficiently with peers and supervisors, the ability to plan, to use technology and computation techniques where required, have all placed a premium on the need for higher levels of literacy in many workplaces.
Although it is not yet well understood, in fact the basis of many of these so-called employability skills is literacy. The incorporation of employability skills in national training packages in the VET sector is an important step forward, but in itself will not lead to the attention required to upgrade literacy skills. Only when there is seen to be this explicit linkage, and teachers and trainers adjust their approach and pedagogy accordingly, will increases in the level of literacy occur. Lifelong learning and access to continuing education and training are no longer clichés.
 Sydney Morning Herald article http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/new-language-test-will-be-flexible-pm/2006/09/15/1157827137457.html (sighted 21.6.07)
 See attachment on Interdepartmental Committee to review AMEP, LLNP and WELL models.
 98% of the indigenous peoples represented by the sample, reported speaking English as their first language, whereas, the 1996 census found that English was spoken at home by 80 per cent of Indigenous people. In the Northern Territory however, 61 percent of Indigenous people spoke an Indigenous language at home while in New South Wales less than one percent spoke an Indigenous language at home (ABS Census of population and Housing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people cat. No.2034.0, Canberra, 1998 p85).
 Source: 6202.0 Labour Force, Australia, June 2006, ABS