Literacy and numeracy skills and their use by the Australian workforce

By Chris Ryan Research report 29 October 2009 ISBN 978 1 921413 47 6 print; 978 1 921413 46 9 web


Australia's ageing population has led to a focus on keeping workers in the labour market longer. This paper summarises the findings from the first year of a three-year research program investigating the role of vocational education and training (VET) for older workers. Examining the use of literacy and numeracy skills by older workers and how this affects their VET participation, the paper found that older workers used their skills as much as younger workers, and that older workers in more demanding jobs relative to their skills are more likely to undertake training, although at lower levels than younger workers. 


About the research

Against the backdrop of an ageing population, the focus of keeping older workers in the workforce has remained current, even though Australia has moved from an economic boom time into a downturn. One set of issues is the relationship between the skills of older workers and the skill requirements of jobs available to them. Of particular concern would be evidence of mismatch, since skills not used implies that our investment in education and training is not as effective as it should be. Furthermore, the challenge of keeping older workers in the labour force will be difficult to meet if the skill requirements of jobs exceed the skills of the workers.

This paper summarises the findings from two projects conducted in the first year of a three-year program of research. The first project looked at the relationship between literacy and numeracy skills and their use in the workplace. The analysis allows us to see whether workers in certain age groups are mismatched to their jobs, based on their literacy and numeracy skills. The second project investigated whether the relationship between skill level and skill use affects the propensity to undertake further education and training.

Key messages

  • Older workers make as much use of their literacy and numeracy skills at work as younger workers. Skill mismatch is not a problem that affects older any more than younger workers.
  • Workers who report that their jobs are demanding relative to their skills are more likely to participate in further education and training.
  • Participation in further education and training is lower for older workers compared with younger workers, although they still show higher participation if their jobs are demanding relative to skills.

These findings suggest that older workers do not appear to be moving into less demanding ‘transition’ jobs in preparation for retirement. Lower participation of older workers in education and training is therefore not because they are in less demanding jobs, but is likely to be due to other factors such as fewer opportunities for training provided by employers or less time to recoup a return on investment in training.

Readers interested in further details of the analyses are pointed to the two full reports Skill matches to job requirements and Job requirements and lifelong learning for older workers, available from the NCVER website.

Tom Karmel
Managing Director, NCVER



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