Literacy, numeracy subpar in Nova Scotia high school grads

A new report reveals manufacturers in Nova Scotia are seeing fewer young people with basic math and literacy skills applying for entry-level jobs, despite having high school diplomas.

CEO Roundtable Report says high school grads don't meet basic requirements for entry-level jobs

The Nova Scotia Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters met with more than 100 CEOs and business leaders to get a sense of what recent high school graduates were capable of - the results of which are outlined in the CEO Roundtable Report. (iStockphoto)

A new report reveals manufacturers in Nova Scotia are seeing fewer young people with basic math and literacy skills applying for entry-level jobs, despite having high school diplomas.

The CEO Roundtable Report was released yesterday by the Nova Scotia Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters. 

Carole Lee Reinhardt, vice president of the Nova Scotia Division for Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, told CBC's Mainstreet her organization did eight roundtable sessions across the province.

They met with more than 100 CEOs and business leaders to get a sense of what recent high school graduates are capable of. 

"We heard three or four times that [the companies] are not sure what a high-school diploma means from a competency level," Reinhardt said. 

"What does that mean you can do? Can you do this math? Can you add fractions? Can you do ratios in your head?"

Reinhardt said that companies told her organization just five years ago a high school diploma from Nova Scotia meant that someone would have those skills. She says the uncertainty over whether that's still the case breeds frustration, but also poses a safety concern.

School system 'letting them down'

"There's not enough math that you can do in your head to keep you safe on the job," Reinhardt said.

"In manufacturing, you work with equipment, you work with machinery. Oftentimes there are calculations that you need to make in your head."

If an employee is unable to do those calculations, it may be a safety concern, she says.

PolyCello CEO Stephen Emmerson agrees. 

"From a safety standpoint, it's more the reading that has to be there."

PolyCello is a a flexible packaging company located in Amherst. Emmerson said new employees need to read manuals relating to the machinery they operate, but that numeracy required for measurements is an issue at his company.

"We're not asking people to do calculus, but adding and subtracting, or multiplying and dividing would be part of what they're required to do," he says.

Emmerson said he is concerned about the preparation students receive from the education system in the province before they leave high school.

PollyCello, a company in Amherst, has been doing standardized testing — including a mechanical aptitude test that requires reading comprehension. (Free Images)

"These kids or young people who are intuitively intelligent are just not taught. So, the school system is letting them down. They're saying, 'We've prepared you to go into the workplace,' when in fact they have not."

For more than 20 years, Emmerson's company has been doing standardized testing — including a mechanical aptitude test that requires reading comprehension, and a Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test.

In comparing scores from the past five years of applicants, Emmerson said he has noticed a drop in scores so steep that the company has had to lower the acceptable score for a new hire.

Filling in the gaps

Emmerson and Reinhardt both agree that companies are willing to help provide some of the training to build numeracy and literacy among new employees, but that work adds to the cost of operating a company in the province.

"If someone else can't provide that basic need, and we need these employees, we'll have no choice but to start doing it ourselves," Emmerson said.

"And of course now, we're adding another cost to doing business in Nova Scotia that perhaps other organizations aren't faced with."

Reinhardt said deputy ministers and senior representatives from the provincial government attended yesterday's meeting as the report was released, but she said she is also reaching out to the provincial department of education, as the members of her organization know they need to help find solutions.

"They know that it's not just up to the government and education to do these things," she said.

Emmerson stresses that education is important for industry in this province.

"If this province, this region, wants to keep up with the rest of the world, they need to start with good education. It's just that simple."

Mainstreet has requested an interview with the Minister of Education, Karen Casey, to follow up on this story next week.

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