A new government survey of Australian adult literacy levels will gauge whether previously languishing language, literacy, numeracy and digital (LLND) foundational skills have improved during a decade of unprecedented access to technology and information.

Spearheaded by Jobs and Skills Australia (JSA), the new Foundation Skills Study will pursue three main goals: a survey of Australian adults to evaluate current LLND levels; a feasibility study about how to best assess LLND levels of First Nations Australians; and a deep dive into Commonwealth data to better understand the results for “priority groups”.

A newly published discussion paper outlines the process, with feedback invited through 24 April.

The paper is part of “game changing reforms” designed to improve accessibility to training and education programs, Minister for Skills and Training Brendan O’Connor said as the study was announced.

The latest available figures on Australian adult literacy come from 2011-2012, when Australia participated in the OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey – which striates subjects into five proficiency levels – and found that 13.7 per cent of the population, or 2.3 million people, measured at or below Level 1.

The median outcome was Level 3, with just 2.4 million Australians performing at Level 4 and 200,000 people achieving the highest level of literacy.

For the 7.3 million Australians scoring below the median, the gap threatened employment opportunities and the ability to function in everyday situations where digital skills have become as important as the erstwhile ‘three Rs’ – reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic.

“The system has failed these people,” O’Connor said, “and for the sake of equity, inclusion and economic growth we need to act.”

Amidst the “tightest labour market in decades,” he continued, “there is a pool of Australians that businesses are not tapping into because they lack the prerequisite skills most jobs require.”

The pool of untapped talent is overflowing

OECD analysis links one standard deviation of numeracy to an average seven per cent increase on wages and higher levels of health, volunteer participation, and political efficacy.

Better understanding Australians’ literacy levels will improve the targeting of training and education initiatives, which aim to address festering inequalities that are directly impacting employers’ access to the workers they need.

That access remains problematic for employers around the world, with new figures from employment giant ManpowerGroup finding that 77 per cent of nearly 39,000 surveyed employers worldwide – and 79 per cent of Australian employers – are struggling to fill their open roles.

The most in-demand skills include technical skills in IT and data – required by 27 per cent of employers – as well as engineering (22 per cent), sales and marketing (20 per cent), operations and logistics (19 per cent), and customer-facing and front office roles (17 per cent).

There is also strong demand for soft skills like reliability, self-discipline, creativity, originality, critical thinking, analysis, reasoning, problem solving, resilience, and adaptability.

Fully 57 per cent of employers are addressing their talent challenges by offering more flexibility about when and where employers work – for example, by introducing a four-day working week – while 71 per cent are upskilling and reskilling their current workforce to address the shortfall.

Once the Foundation Skills Study is complete, the data it produces will be used to shape programs designed to address demographic and geographic issues correlated with low LLND scores.

Citing recent policy initiatives such as the government’s Fee-Free TAFE initiative, O’Connor said, ongoing reforms would focus on removing the “barriers of shame and distrust of education, which is locking so many people out of accessing important training programs.”

“A developed nation and advanced economy like Australia should not be letting these people down.”