Understanding Essential Skills

Essential skills include the skills associated with literacy (i.e. reading, writing, document use and numeracy) but goes beyond to also include thinking skills, oral communication, computer use/digital skills, working with others and the skills associated with continuous learning. They provide the foundation for learning all other skills and enable people to better prepare for, get and keep a job, and adapt and succeed at work.



Reading refers to reading material in the form of sentences or paragraphs.

It generally involves reading notes, letters, memos, manuals, specifications, regulations, books, reports or journals.

Reading includes:

  • forms and labels if they contain at least one paragraph
  • print and non-print media (for example, text on computer screens and microfiche)
  • paragraph-length text in charts, tables and graphs

Writing includes:

  • writing texts and writing in documents (for example, filling in forms)
  • non-paper-based writing (for example, typing on a computer)
Document use

Document use involved a variety of information displays in which words, numbers, icons and other visual characteristics (e.g. line, colour, shape) are given meaning by their spatial arrangement. For example, graphs, lists, tables, blueprints, schematics, drawings, signs and labels are documents used in the world of work.

Document use includes:

  • print and non-print media (for example, computer screen or microfiche documents, equipment gauges, clocks and flags);
  • reading/interpreting and writing/completing/producing of documents, These two uses of documents often occur simultaneously as part of the same task, e.g., completing a form, checking off items on a list of tasks, plotting information on a graph, and entering information on an activity schedule.

Numeracy refers to the workers' use of numbers and their capability to think in quantitative terms.

Computer use/digital skills

Computer use indicates the variety and complexity of computer use within the occupational group.


Thinking differentiates between six different types of interconnected cognitive functions:

  • problem solving;
  • decision making;
  • critical thinking;
  • job task planning and organizing;
  • significant use of memory; and
  • finding information.
Oral communication

Oral communication pertains primarily to the use of speech to give and exchange thoughts and information by workers in an occupational group.

Working with others

Working with others examines the extent to which employees work with others to carry out their tasks. Do they have to work co-operatively with others? Do they have to have the self-discipline to meet work targets while working alone?

Continuous learning

It examines the requirement for workers in an occupational group to participate in an ongoing process of acquiring skills and knowledge.

Continuous learning tests the hypothesis that more and more jobs require continuous upgrading and all workers must continue learning to keep or to grow with their jobs. If this is true, then the following will become essential skills:

  • knowing how to learn;
  • understanding one's own learning style; and
  • knowing how to gain access to a variety of materials, resources and learning opportunities.

Levels of complexity

Levels of complexity are a tool that measures the skills needed to perform a task. Example tasks for workers in a specific job are assigned levels ranging from 1 (basic task) to 4 or 5 (advanced task). The levels may vary based on the requirements of the workplace.

Complexity levels were developed to address the differences in skill needs between occupations.

For example, a bricklayer and a travel counselor both need the essential skill of writing to do their jobs effectively. However, the type of writing and the complexity differs for each job:

  • Bricklayers require a level 2 in writing as their job involves simple tasks (such as writing estimate sheets to give details on the cost of materials or labour, and filling out forms like incident reports).
  • Travel counselors require a level 3 in writing as they use a more complex vocabulary and writing style (to write documents such as magazine articles and promotional materials to advertise tours and highlight special events).

The complexity level for writing is higher for the travel counselor because the rating scale considers the following elements of writing:

  • length
  • purpose
  • style
  • structure
  • content
A task’s complexity rating also changes depending on the context.

For example, a children’s librarian hosts story time by reading books aloud to children to capture their attention and entertain them. In this case, the librarian is performing at a complexity level 1 for oral communication due to the narrow range of subject matter and the familiar subject. She is simply reading from a book rather than improvising.

If the librarian was invited to present to thousands of her colleagues at a UNICEF convention on children’s literature, she would be performing at a level 4 for oral communication. This presentation would be much more complex and would involve extensive preparation. Also, such a situation would be more threatening due to the large audience and high professional risk.

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