A top business development expert says unless literacy rates improve the coming wave of information technology-related jobs will overlook the province.

Stephen Lund, president and chief executive of Nova Scotia Business Inc., said during a recent meeting with the Telegraph-Journal editorial board that literacy levels will determine the prosperity of the region.

“The technology is changing so fast if we can’t handle the technological evolution we’ll get left behind,” said the leader of Nova Scotia’s private sector-led business development agency.

“Nine out of 10 jobs in the future will be IT-related,” Lund said. “And I don’t mean programmers. Take any industry and look 10 years from now – the entire workforce will need a higher literacy level.”

Nearly 40 per cent of people in the bluenose province are functionally illiterate, he said.

“We’ve got thousands of knowledge-related jobs coming to Halifax,” Lund said. “If we don’t have the people ready for those jobs than the companies won’t stick around.”

But literacy rates are even grimmer in New Brunswick. A report released this month by the Canadian Council on Learning suggests New Brunswickers are more likely to struggle with reading and writing than other Canadians.

The data tracked literacy rates in more than 50,000 Canadian communities using 2003 literacy figures and 2006 Census results from Statistics Canada. Almost 50 per cent of Canadians had an adult literacy rate at or below Level 2, which is defined as having the capacity to only deal with simple material involving uncomplicated tasks.

In New Brunswick, there were regions where the percentage of people struggling with literacy jumped as high as 70 per cent.

“The debate in the future will no longer be about urban versus rural or big business versus small,” Lund said. “It will be about educated versus uneducated and the jobs will go where the educated workforce is.”

A recent Statistics Canada study found a strong link between education, literacy and economic growth. Using data from an international adult literacy survey, the study found that investments in education and skills training are three times as important to economic growth over the long run than investment in physical capital, such as machinery and equipment.

In addition, the study found that the average literacy score is a better indicator of growth than one based only on the percentage of the population with very high literacy scores.

A country that promotes literacy skills throughout its entire population will therefore be more prosperous than if the gap between high-skill and low-skill groups is large.

“We recognize the solution has to be about investing in early education,” said Charles Cirtwill, executive vice-president at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a Halifax-based public policy think tank.

“Most governments have recognized they have a literacy problem and have responded by increasing spending,” he said. “But one of the things we often forget is that it will be 20 years before they’re in the workforce so it needs to be a balanced strategy and right now I don’t think we’ve got it.”

The challenge of moving from a resource-based economy into a knowledge economy is that many trade jobs – like mechanics, plumbers, electricians and pipe fitters – will require a higher level of literacy, Cirtwill said

But a particular challenge for New Brunswick will be moving past “the first generation call centres that fueled the ‘McKenna Miracle,'” he said. “Those jobs have now moved into even lower cost areas like India.”

“The call centres you now see in Atlantic Canada are second or third generation call centres where it’s not just about handing calls in an expeditious way it’s the capacity of the individuals answering the calls to do detailed technical stuff that requires a higher literacy level.”