Canadian adults rank above their peers in other countries when it comes to being able to problem solve in technology-rich environments, but there are also a high number of adults in the country who lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, according to a new international survey of adult competency.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development measured literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills in 22 member nations in 2012. 

The study reveals a polarization of skills within the population, with a large number of Canadians mastering highly complex problem solving skills but a comparably large number unable to read and work with numbers at a level necessary for modern life.

The computer-literate Canadian

Problem solving in technology-rich environments is defined as the ability to use digital technology, communications tools and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others and perform practical tasks.

The OECD evaluated these skills in terms of five levels of competency.

Overall, seven per cent of Canadians performed at the highest competency level, with only Sweden having a higher percentage of adults who were skilled at solving problems involving multiple applications and a large number of steps.

Among Canadians surveyed, 37 per cent scored at the top two levels of competency, which was more than the OECD average of 34 per cent.

Both Ontario and Alberta had a higher than average number of adults with strong computer literacy skills.

At the same time, 15 per cent of Canadians were at or below the lowest level of competency, three percentage points higher than the OECD average. These individuals had the basic information and communication technology skills to take the test but had difficulty solving problems.

The findings point to a polarized workforce, with a large number of technology-literate, innovative thinkers but also a large percentage who lack basic skills.

Canadians and numeracy 

The survey also points to some disturbing trends in numeracy and literacy in Canada.

It found 17 per cent of Canadians were at the lowest level of literacy, with four per cent demonstrating only basic vocabulary and the ability to locate a single piece of information in a brief written text.

Facility with numbers was also wanting, with 23 per cent of Canadians performing at the lowest level, compared to 19 per cent for the OECD.

So, while Canada is generally on a par with the OECD nations for literacy and slightly below for numeracy skills, there is still a large group of adults who don’t have the basic tools for coping in an information-saturated world.

If the picture in Canada is sobering, the numbers for the U.S. are even more of a wake-up call.

Adults in the U.S. fall behind many of their developed-world counterparts in all areas, including math, reading and problem-solving using technology.

Japan and Finland lead, U.S. lags

In literacy, the U.S. was well behind countries such as Japan and Finland but ahead of France, Spain and Italy.

In numeracy, it was third from the bottom but ahead of Spain, which, along with Italy, ranked very low on both numeracy and problem solving skills.

 Although Japan and Finland came out on top in the survey by all measures, South Korea was the major success story. Older workers in Korea reported low levels of literacy and facility with math, but young people ranked at the top of the list — reflecting the country's enormous support for universal education after the 1950-53 Korean War.

For this first global study of adult skills, the OECD interviewed 166,000 people from 24 countries and regions -- involving people from all walks of life who agreed to sit down for tests that could last up to 90 minutes.

 "We're looking at decades of policy. We're looking across generations," said Stefano Scarpetta, the OECD's director for employment labour and social affairs.