Illiteracy costs economy SFr1 billion a year

Almost a million adults in Switzerland have difficulty reading and writing Keystone

Illiteracy is not only a burden for those who have difficulty reading or writing – the economic damage is estimated at SFr1.1 billion ($900 million) a year.

This content was published on April 12, 2007 - 17:57

A major factor is that illiteracy doubles the likelihood of being unemployed, according to a study released on Thursday by the Federal Statistics Office.

Women are affected by illiteracy slightly more than men, said Jürg Guggisberg, leader of the study, which was carried out on behalf of the Centre for Labour and Socio-Political Studies. In addition illiterate people tend to be older and, often like their parents, have a low level of education.

Guggisberg said the wages of those with reading and writing problems were about 20 per cent below average – a consequence, he explained, of educational deficits rather than illiteracy itself.

An improved ability to read and write would make it easier for those affected to fill in gaps in their education, he added.

Roger Nordmann, president of the Swiss Reading and Writing Federation, said on Thursday that SFr1.1 billion was a conservative estimate and that there were no reliable figures for the amount spent on helping those with reading and writing problems.

Nordmann said the organisation would push this year for a greater involvement in the struggle against illiteracy by the government and cantons.

He called in particular for schools to implement more effective methods of teaching reading and writing, but he also wanted improved efforts concerning adult education.

The organisation said being able to read and write enhanced social, cultural and political life as well as having purely economic value.

Fewer unemployed

Guggisberg explained that 48,000 people without jobs, 36 per cent of the total, had literacy problems. Without these difficulties, their chances of being unemployed would conform to the norm and the number would drop to 24,000.

In other words, he said, there would be 24,000 fewer people claiming unemployment benefit.

In Switzerland, which has a population of 7.5 million, almost a million people of working age have difficulty reading and writing.

Of those million, a third can blame linguistic problems, but the remainder have spent at least half of their obligatory schooling in Switzerland.

An estimated 600,000 people with literacy problems in Switzerland are integrated into the labour market or are looking for employment, roughly one in six of the total workforce.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

An illiterate person will normally have had little or no schooling, but a functionally illiterate person has normally completed compulsory schooling.
In Switzerland, around 800,000 adults are considered functionally illiterate, meaning they find it difficult to read or write – 366,000 are Swiss and 415,500 are foreign.
In addition 4,000-5,000 pupils leave school every year with a level of literacy that seriously limits their chances of securing an apprenticeship.

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