The Nine


I've been looking through some photos from B.C. Urban poverty stuff. Things are rough on that coast, too, I guess. There's something essential we're missing, something essential to life and progress and community.

That was in my head when, recently, I answered a survey that asked (Question # 2), "Are you familiar with the 9 Essential Skills?"

The Nine? Sounds magical, doesn't it? Like the Nazg├╗l, the Nine Black Riders, or the Nine Stone Maidens of Belstone Tor.

Or maybe it just sounds ideological.

The short answer to their question was "Well, I know of the list, but I don't pay much attention to it."

I mean, it is just a list. Though it sometimes names more important things, it is a list mostly relevant only to planners and programmers.

The list has its origins in the 1980s recession and various job retraining or "welfare to workforce" programs here and in the U.S. At that time, our business and political leadership said our country's high unemployment rate was caused by an under- or mis-educated workforce. Dutifully, some policy analysts began asking what kinds of skills were needed for the "new economy."

As early as 1990, the U.S. government offered a list of five "necessary" skills:
  • reading;
  • writing;
  • numeracy;
  • oral communication;
  • problem-solving.
This fivefold list was built on prior "efforts by industrial psychologists, business groups, and others to characterize... the skills required by work"(U.S. Dept Labor website, Sept 9, 2009). The work of the Dept. appears to have been reducing more than a dozen existing skill lists - one with no less than 64 necessary skills - to a single list with manageable numbers.

In any case, the list of five became prevalent from Arizona to Alaska, although everyone seemed happy to adjust the wording to suit themselves.

For example, the Arizona's The Information Literacy Committee's Report '94 (1994, Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction, Maricopa County Community College District, Arizona) writes of "information literacy":
The [United States Department of Labor] Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) report identifies information literacy as one of five essential skills that the workplace will demand of employees of the future.
These same general quintuplet of skills informs curriculum choices for community or Summer programming offered through the University of Alaska Fairbanks (see here and here).


Initially, Canada was also happy with the same list of five general skills; see, for example, the excellent BC Construction Industry Skills Improvement Council's SkillPlan documents, each of which focus on one of the five. These five skills made for a nice neat list, general enough to please everyone. But things just wouldn't stay put, here or in the U.S.

People wanted to know, is reading text different from document use? Are calculation and measurement different numeracy skills? Does oral communication refer to vocabulary and grammar, or to tactics for clear and persuasive speaking? And what about all those personal skills like good grooming or knowing how to show up to work on time?

Over the next decade, things got more complicated, and the list(s) started getting longer. In 2005, OARS Training Inc. wrote in their Canadian Indigenous People: Workplace Literacy and Essential Skills:
The Workplace Practitioner Competency System© recognizes the importance of linking a diverse range of roles around the common goal – address the Essential Skills levels of Canadians. The System defines five Foundation KSA (Knowledge, Skills, Attributes) competency areas, seven Areas of Workplace Practice and five Essential Skills Integration levels. The Foundation KSA competency areas cross all seven Areas of Practice to show the importance of these competencies in successful workplace practice.
Seven and five and five and seven.... Nothing neat and tidy there!


I'm not sure exactly when the majority shifted from five or seven to nine essential skills - though proof that the fad has caught on is found in this webpage headline: 9 Top CSS Essential Skills That Every Web Designer Should Learn.

Our current list of nine reads:
  • Reading
  • Document Use
  • Numeracy
  • Writing
  • Oral Communication
  • Working With Others
  • Thinking
  • Computer Use
  • Continuous Learning
However, even these nine are not enough: I heard a manger recently remind a group of teachers that each essential skill could be taken all the way up to the fifth level. Is that 45 essential skills, or 45 grades of essentiality, or... just video game talk?

Here's the one thing that has stayed in place since 1990: these are skills and constellations of skills deemed important by certain people (in our case, by 3000 Canadian employers and managers) for other people to use in a particular place, the modern workplace. These are essential workplace skills.

These are handy skills for sure; though "Continuous Learning" isn't really a skill, and "Thinking" is problematic category. But I'm not sure these are essential skills. Only some are primarily communication skills. Only some are socio-political skills. They may make for "effective, efficient and productive" employees (Workplace Education Manitoba). Whether that makes them essential - "humanly essential" - is a matter of philosophical and political argument.


Thankfully, I'm a literacy worker who works in a learner-centered environment. That means people tell me what they want to learn - what is desirable (if not always "essential") for them in the moment.

Mostly, this involves improving their reading and ability to calculate, learning some spelling strategies, improving their writing, and learning something about computers and online communication. Some also want help passing a test such as a citizenship test, a driver's test, or the GED tests. In those cases, the tests determine what is "essential" in the moment.

As for those other humanly essential skills, the skills that seem to be missing on the streets of Hastings and Saint John... I don't know how to help people find these.

But I was able to answer when the survey makers asked me which skill I thought most necessary for learners in my program, I answered,
It would be a tie between Oral Communication and Working With Others. Both are needed to bring about political and economic change.

No comments: