Why low levels of literacy may be holding the UK construction industry back

In the UK, the construction industry is one of three sectors suffering most with low levels of literacy. This has a significant impact on the performance on the industry and, crucially, its ability to go digital

Author: Brian Ward

31 July 2020

The construction sector has been facing a growing skills crisis for almost two decades now. Over the same period, it has also been producing ever-increasing quantities of data that, it is generally agreed, are currently underutilised, which is compromising productivity. Digital literacy is essential to optimising this data, but basic skills have yet to be brought up to the level needed for current workplace requirements.

In 2018 the Financial Times reported that the construction ‘sector’s productivity was only 8.9% higher in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period in 1997, whereas output per hour worked has risen 27.6% in the economy as a whole’. One reason for the lagging increase in productivity is that the construction industry has been slower to develop literacy and numeracy skills, as well as digital literacy, than other industries.

More than a decade prior to this Financial Times article, the Leitch Review was asked to investigate and recommend the skills needed by the UK economy to remain competitive in the 21st century. The resulting 2006 Leitch Report found that UK basic skills lagged behind international standards, negatively impacting national prosperity and productivity.

Literacy is broken down into five levels.

  • Entry Level 1

    Equivalent to literacy levels at age 5-7. Adults below Entry Level 1 may not be able to write short messages to family or read a road sign.

  • Entry Level 2

    Equivalent to literacy levels at age 7-9. Adults with below Entry Level 2 may not be able to describe a child’s symptoms to a doctor or read a label on a medicine bottle.

  • Entry Level 3

    Equivalent to literacy levels at age 9-11. Adults with skills below Entry Level 3 may not be able to understand labels on pre-packaged food or understand household bills.

  • Level 1

    Equivalent to GCSE grades D-G. Adults with skills below Level 1 may not be able to read bus or train timetables or understand their pay slip.

  • Level 2

    Equivalent to GCSE grades A*-C. Adults with skills below Level 2 may not have the skills to spot fake news or bias in the media.

Although the UN reports that the UK is 99% literate, adults who fall within the Entry level 1 and 2 categories do not have high enough skills to work in most industries or jobs.

The report acknowledged this gap, and set out ambitions for the UK to become a world leader in skills by 2020, identifying the following goals:

  • 95% of adults to achieve the basic skills of functional literacy and numeracy, an increase from levels of 85% literacy and 79% per cent numeracy in 2005
  • exceeding 90% of adults qualified to at least Level 2, an increase from 69% in 2005.

However, a 2010 follow up suggested that the country was already progressing too slowly to meet these ambitions, and successive OECD reports have corroborated this initial pessimism.

Current trends in England and the UK

The number of adults in the UK who are considered functionally illiterate varies between reports, depending on what entry level they use as their cut-off point, but a 2016 OECD report entitled Building Skills For All: A Review of England found that ‘an estimated 9m working aged adults in England (more than a quarter of adults aged 16-65)’ had either ‘low literacy or numeracy skills or both.’ Far from a minor issue then, low literacy and numeracy affects a significant portion of the working population across all industries.

However, a BIS Impact of Poor English and Maths Skills on Employers report, also from 2016, found that ‘respondents in the construction and accommodation and food service sectors were less likely than average to achieve Level 1 literacy.’ The issue of illiteracy is therefore particularly crucial to the construction industry, as one of three industries with the highest proportion of employees below Level 1.

There are a lot of misconceptions about literacy and numeracy skills and who is likely to be affected. Many people might assume that the oldest members of the population are most likely to have poor reading skills, but the 2016 OECD report states that ‘in England, one-third of those aged 16-19 have low basic skills’, and of particular significance, about one in ten of all English university students are below Level 2 for numeracy or literacy. Within the 16-19 age group, England has three times more low-skilled individuals than the best performing countries.

The number of low-skilled individuals entering the workforce is now higher than the number who are retiring, which means the overall skill level is decreasing – a particularly worrying trend for all industries, not just construction. OECD calculations, based on the Survey of Adult Skills (PIACC) (2012) (database), found that in most countries, but not in England, younger people have stronger basic skills than the generation of people approaching retirement.

In England, the percentage of those aged 16-24 with literacy and/or numeracy skills below Level 2 was almost equal the same for those aged 55-65. In most other countries studied, except the USA, there was a marked difference in the figures. Notable examples include Spain, France, Poland, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, Japan and Korea where the number of 55-65 year olds with literacy and/or numeracy skills below Level 2 was over double those aged 16-24.

England lags behind OECD averages at all qualification levels among 16-34-year-old participants. Despite the fact that there are low-skilled individuals in all industries, evidence shows a strong correlation between low skill levels and manual labour industries. The 2011 BIS skills for life research paper found that 19% of construction industry respondents met literacy Entry Level 3 or below, and 23% met numeracy Entry Level 2.

"The number of low-skilled individuals entering the workforce is now higher than the number who are retiring, which means the overall skill level is decreasing"

Share of young adults with low basic skills: 16-34 year olds, by highest qualification

Qualification level Average of OECD Survey participants England
Below UK Level 2 29.8% 48%
UK Level 2 and 3 15% 20.7%
Post-secondary non-university
(UK Level 4 and 5)
10.2% 21.4%
University (UK Level 6 and above and some Level 5) 3.6% 6.9%

Share of young adults with low basic skills: 16-34 year olds, by highest qualification

Qualification level Average of OECD Survey participants England
Below UK Level 2 29.8% 48%
UK Level 2 and 3 15% 20.7%
Post-secondary non-university
(UK Level 4 and 5)
10.2% 21.4%
University (UK Level 6 and above and some Level 5) 3.6% 6.9%

Source: OECD calculations based on the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) (2012) (database)

In the context of a construction site, reading ability of Level 3 or lower puts the individual at an increased risk of accident and injury because they cannot read important safety signs. They are unlikely to be able to follow any written instructions or to be able to communicate sufficiently via email or other written means. Lower numeracy levels may affect their ability to read and provide measurements, as well as input or comprehend data in a spreadsheet. Taken as a whole, this means that lower literacy has a direct impact on safety, communications, and productivity within the industry.

Costs to the economy

A March 2018 white paper by the World Literacy Foundation entitled The Economic & Social Cost of Illiteracy found that illiteracy was estimated to cost the UK economy £80bn in that year alone through loss of productivity and business earnings, as well as welfare and unemployment programs.

Although surveyors may be highly skilled in both literacy and numeracy, the majority of surveyors work in industries, for clients, or alongside colleagues where there are high levels of illiteracy, which impacts both the work of surveyors and the ability of their customers and colleagues to implement surveyor reports and recommendations. It stands to reason that if a significant portion of the construction industry have difficulties with reading or numeracy, the industry will be unable to widely adopt new technologies which place increased literacy, data analysis and problem-solving demands on the individual. It is worth noting that the nations that have consistently returned the highest literacy proficiency results – Japan, Korea, Sweden and Norway – have also been early adopters of MMC and digitisation.

In 2015 the UK spent the equivalent of $11,400 per student in elementary and secondary education, which is higher than the OECD average, and compares favourably with nations who reported much higher literacy rates, such as Korea ($12,000) and Japan ($10,200), though not as much as Norway ($15,100). However, education spend is just part of the equation, as the Build Basic Skills report identifies family background has a significant effect on literacy, particularly in England – only Czechia and the Slovak Republic showed a more pronounced impact from parental education. It is notable that parental education is not significantly associated with 16-20-year olds’ performance in Japan and Korea, but this can be attributed to the high quality of the education services provided in these nations, particularly outside the school setting, as opposed to the uneven system that exists in the UK. For instance, The Guardian reports that the city of Suwon in Korea ‘guarantees a library within 10 minutes’ walk and a learning centre within 20 minutes’ of every citizen’s home’. This is in obvious contrast with more than a decade of austerity and concomitant cuts to education and library services across the UK. In addition, while the $11,400 may be an average per student figure, the money is not evenly distributed towards each student.  

"Although surveyors may be highly skilled in both literacy and numeracy, the majority of surveyors work in industries or alongside colleagues where there are high levels of illiteracy"
Tromso Pubic Library and City Archives, Norway

Tromso Pubic Library and City Archives, Norway. In 2015, Norway spent the equivalent of $15,100 per student in elementary and secondary education

Water front property under construction in Oslo, Norway

Norway is an early adopter of MMC and digitisation

In 2017 the National Literacy Trust found that a third of young people aged 8 to 16 said that they didn’t have a book of their own at home. The Trust states that 25% of employers are not satisfied with school and college leavers’ literacy and numeracy skills, which is a significant factor in the continuing skills shortage in key career paths. It stands to reason, then, that both adult literacy campaigns and reading at home should be better supported in order to help the younger generations coming through.

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which was established to help implement the recommendations of the Leitch Report, was closed in 2017. Though an official review of the Leitch Report goals has yet to be published, OECD projections from the 2017 Adult Skills in Focus report How much will the literacy level of the working-age population change from now to 2022? suggested there will be almost no increase in proficiency by 2022 and the UK will continue to lag behind literacy leaders. By closing the UKCES, the government abandoned the Leitch Report 2020 goals, which is apparent in these OECD projections. Therefore, if this trend is to change, it will have to be driven by non-governmental bodies within UK society. The construction sector already has some regulations and bodies in place, such as the apprenticeship levy and the CITB, that could be directed towards helping increase literacy both within the industry and for individuals who want to move into construction.

There is a danger that the basic skills crisis has gone on for so long now that it is overtaken by other shortfalls in the UK economy. The Learning and Work Institute states that participation in adult learning courses is at a 20-year low. In 2019, the CBI produced a report entitled Employers and Lifelong Learning that addresses key areas where the UK needs to improve, but does not include any information on adult illiteracy, which must form the base of all subsequent improvements. Improving literacy in all age groups of society is essential not just to maintain economic growth, but for health and safety, and to develop well-rounded individuals. With respect to the construction industry, if it is to achieve its long-awaited digital transformation, consideration must be given to the literacy levels of its professionals.

Brian Ward is an editor at RICS

Related competencies include: Diversity and inclusion

Practical action: the Literacy Business Pledge

The Literacy Business Pledge, an initiative by the National Literacy Trust now in its fifth year, provides support for businesses to help them ‘identify local areas of need and target activity most effectively’, emphasising ‘the importance of businesses taking action in their local community’.

The aim is to provide local and coordinated solutions to address the ‘localised nature of the literacy challenge’. Each company that signs up to the initiative pledges to ‘elevate the literacy issue within our business and take action (commensurate with size) based on the needs of our local area to close the literacy gap’ by:

  • engaging our employees in the literacy challenge
  • supporting the drive to raise literacy levels in our local community
  • contributing to the national campaign to raise literacy levels.

More information on the Vision for Literacy Business Pledge 2020 can be found at or by contacting

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