Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies Series

    Skills in Canada: First Results from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC)


    PIAAC defines literacy as “understanding, evaluating, using and engaging with written texts to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential” (OECD 2012).

    PIAAC defines numeracy as “the ability to access, use, interpret and communicate mathematical information and ideas, in order to engage in and manage the mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life” (OECD 2012).

    Problem-solving in technology-rich environments (PS-TRE)
    PIAAC defines problem solving in technology-rich environments (PS‑TRE) as the ability to use “digital technology, communication tools and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others and perform practical tasks” (OECD 2012).

    Reading Components
    To provide more detailed information about adults with low literacy skills, the literacy assessment in this survey is complemented by a test of “reading component” skills. These are the basic set of decoding skills that enable individuals to extract meaning from written texts: knowledge of vocabulary, ability to process meaning at the level of the sentence, and fluency in reading passages of text (OECD 2012).

    Module of the Use of Skills
    The PIAAC Module of the Use of Skills is contained within the Background Questionnaire and asks adults who are employed about a number of generic skills they use in the workplace. It asks adults how intensively and how frequently they use these skills at work. Information is also collected about four broad categories of generic work skills: cognitive skills, interaction and social skills, physical skills, and learning skills.

    Background Questionnaire
    The international “master” version of the questionnaire used in PIAAC can be accessed at Each country adapted questions to reflect national circumstances in domains such as educational attainment and participation, labour-force participation and employment, where institutional structures were nationally specific or where there were national protocols for collecting data. Countries also had the opportunity to add a small number of “national” questions to the national versions of the background questionnaire. The Canadian version of the PIAAC background questionnaire can be accessed at

    ICT core
    The mastery of foundational ICT skills is a prerequisite for proficiency in problem solving in technology-rich environments. Respondents with some experience of computer use were directed to the computer-based assessment where they took a short test of their ability to use the basic features of the test application (use of a mouse, typing, use of highlighting, and drag and drop functionality). Those who “failed” this component were directed to the pencil and paper pathway.

    Opted out of the CBA
    Respondents with some computer experience who opt out of taking the CBA without first attempting it and are taken to the paper-based assessment.

    No computer experience
    Respondents with no experience in using computers, as indicated by their response to the relevant questions in the background questionnaire, were directed to the pencil and paper version of the assessment.

    PIAAC non-respondents
    In Canada, a proportion of respondents were unable to undertake the assessment for literacy-related reasons such as being unable to speak or read in English or French. Some of these respondents completed the background questionnaire, or key parts of it, presumably with the assistance of an interviewer who spoke the respondent’s language, a family member or another person. In the case of respondents who completed at least 5 questions in the background questionnaire, proficiency scores have been estimated in literacy and numeracy only. In Canada, this group is known as uncategorized, and totals 330 respondents, representing 1.2% of Canada’s total sample.

    Others were not able to respond to the background questionnaire, or responded to less than 5 questions in the background questionnaire. For these respondents, known as literacy-related non-respondents, the only information collected was that concerning their age, sex, and, in some cases, highest educational attainment. In Canada, this group totals 231 cases, and represents 0.9% of the total sample.

    An immigrant is a person who is, or has ever been, a landed immigrant/permanent resident. Recent immigrants are defined as those immigrants who have been in Canada since 2002 (10 years or less). Established immigrants are those immigrants who arrived in Canada before 2002 (more than 10 years).

    In this report, Aboriginal peoples are identified as those respondents living off reserve who self-identified as being Aboriginal, that is, First Nations, Métis or Inuit.

    Official language minority population
    This population was based on mother tongue — that is, the first language learned at home in childhood and still understood, and refers to people living in a minority setting.  Those in provinces outside Quebec have French as mother tongue; those in Quebec have English as mother tongue.

    In this report, an Anglophone is an individual with either English or English and another language than French as mother tongue.

    In this report, a Francophone is an individual with either French or French and another language than English as mother tongue.

    Population Centre
    A population centre is defined as an area with a population of at least 1,000 and a density of 400 or more people per square kilometre. All areas outside population centres are defined as rural area. Population centres are divided into three groups based on the size of their population to reflect the existence of an urban-rural continuum:

    • small population centres, with a population of between 1,000 and 29,999;
    • medium population centres, with a population of between 30,000 and 99,999;
    • large urban population centres, consisting of a population of 100,000 and over.

    Highest educational attainment
    The highest level of education ever completed. Education is defined as formal education provided in the system of schools, colleges, universities and other formal educational institutions. Educational attainment is based on the 1997 International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) coding developed by UNESCO. Includes every type of education associated with obtaining a certificate or diploma the respondent has ever successfully completed.

    • Less than high school diploma: Respondents who have either had no formal education or whose highest level of schooling successfully completed includes Elementary school, or Jr High/Middle School. In terms of ISCED classification, this group includes: No formal qualification or below ISCED 1, ISCED 1, and ISCED 2.
    • High school diploma:  Respondents whose highest level of schooling successfully completed includes Senior High School, Adult secondary school, or Upgrading programs or courses. In terms of ISCED classification, this group includes: ISCED 3C shorter than 2 years, ISCED 3C 2 years or more, ISCED 3A-B, and ISCED 3 (without distinction A-B-C, 2 years or more).
    • Postsecondary education - below bachelor’s degree: Respondents whose highest level of schooling successfully completed includes non-university certificate or diploma from a college, school of nursing, or technical institute; trade/vocational certificates; apprenticeship certificates; CEGEP diploma or certificates; university transfer programs; and university certificate or diploma programs below bachelor’s degree.  In terms of ISCED classification, this group includes: ISCED 4C, ISCED 4A-B, ISCED 4 (without distinction A-B-C), and ISCED 5B.
    • Postsecondary education - bachelor’s degree or higher: Respondents whose highest level of schooling successfully completed includes bachelor’s degree, university certificate above bachelor level, first professional degree (medical, veterinary medicine, dental, optometry, law and divinity), Master’s, and Ph.D. In terms of ISCED classification, this group includes: ISCED 5A: bachelor degree, ISCED 5A: master degree, and ISCED 6.

    The occupation categories in this report are derived from the International Standard Classification of Occupations (ISCO), a classification published by the International Labour Organization (ILO), and applied to ensure cross-country comparability of occupations in PIAAC. The basis for the classification is the nature of the job and the required skill level, where a job is defined as the set of tasks and duties to be performed, and skills are the abilities to carry out the tasks and duties of such job.

    Both PIAAC international and pan-Canadian reports applied the same derived variable for the occupation categories.

    • Managerial and professional occupations (skilled occupations) include:  legislators, senior officials, and managers (ISCO 1); professionals (ISCO 2); and technicians and associate professionals (ISCO 3).
    • Service and support occupations (semi-skilled) include: clerical support (ISCO 4) and service and sales (ISCO 5) workers.
    • Trade, production and manufacturing occupations (semi-skilled) include: skilled agricultural and fishery workers (ISCO 6); craft and related trades workers (ISCO 7); plant and machine operators and assemblers (ISCO 8).
    • Manual and other service occupations (low skilled) include: elementary occupations (ISCO 9) such as  cleaners; agricultural, forestry, and fishery labourers; as well as those in mining, construction, manufacturing and transport  

    Further information on the occupational classifications applied in PIAAC can be found at ILO.Note 1

    Employment Status

    Employed respondents were those who in the week prior to PIAAC: (1) did at least one hour of paid work, either as an employee or self-employed, or (2) were away from a job they plan to return to, or (3) did at least one hour of unpaid work for a business they or a relative owns.

    Unemployed respondents did not identify themselves in any of the employed categories, and they indicated they were actively looking for work in the 4 weeks prior to PIAAC, as well as able to begin work within 2 weeks. The unemployed population also consists of respondents who were waiting to begin a job for which they had been hired and would begin employment in the subsequent 3 months.

    Not in the labour force
    In PIAAC, those “out of the labour force” were respondents who met none of the employment conditions and did not actively look for work in the 4 weeks prior to PIAAC, or would not begin work for more than 3 months. The out of the labour force population also consists of respondents who did not take active steps to find a job and were not looking for work or available to begin work within 2 weeks of the survey.


    1. International Labour Office. (2012). “Structure, group definitions and correspondence tables”, International Standard Classification of Occupations 2008, Volume I, International Labour Organization.
      International Labour Organization (ILO). (2004). “Introduction to occupation classifications”, International Standard Classification of Occupations, International Labour Organization.
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