Business leaders in Saint John are calling for 100 volunteers to step forward and help young children learn how to read.

New Brunswick has the second-lowest literacy rate in the country and Saint John's record is among the worst.

ELF volunteer Kate Shannon and Gr. 2 student Molly Horgan

ELF volunteer Kate Shannon enjoys assisting Gr. 2 student Molly Horgan at Princess Elizabeth School. (CBC)

"When I looked at the numbers five years ago, I was shocked. And when I looked at the numbers that came out last year, I was depressed," said Craig Alexander, senior vice-president and chief economist for TD Bank Group, referring to a recent study.

"And we're already hearing small and medium-sized businesses across the country complaining that they are having difficulty finding the skilled workers that they need," said 

Alexander, who is based in Toronto, was guest speaker Tuesday in Saint John at a call to action event called Achieve Literacy Greater Saint John.

About a quarter of Grade 2 students in Saint John area are not meeting literacy goals, said event co-chair Roxanne Fairweather, who is the co-CEO of Innovatia, one of the fastest growing technology companies in Atlantic Canada.

The low reading proficiency scores of local children are a concern for the community's long-term prosperity, but the problem cannot be solved by parents and educators alone, she said.

"These kids can learn how to read. We just need time on task and ELF literacy can help with that," said Fairweather, referring to the province-wide volunteer program, Elementary Literacy Friends.

It offers one-on-one reading mentoring in schools. ELF spokesperson Patrick Lacroix says just two hours a week can make a measurable difference.

"We notice a significant gain in reading ability. And so we're moving them up the reading level toward their expected reading level. And we hope that we're the spark that really ignites their passion for reading," he said.

To be an ELF volunteer requires a commitment of two hours a week for 10 weeks.