while illiteracy, defined as the total inability to read and write, has now been almost completely eradicated in Europe, the phenomenon of 'functional illiteracy' is becoming increasingly serious.

For a relatively high percentage of EU citizens, insufficient literacy and numeracy skills lead to exclusion from social and occupational participation and to a loss of employment. Job requirements are increasing even in sectors with low-qualification demands. Basic skills in literacy and numeracy are more important than ever. They provide the foundation for vocational training, that can lead to employment, self-sustainment and personal independence.

In economic terms, illiteracy generates additional costs for undertakings and affects their ability to modernise. These extra costs are linked to high accident rates, extra salary costs to offset the lack of skills of individual employees and extra time for supplementary personnel supervision; further costs result from the non-production of wealth linked to the absence of optimal qualifications.

The employability deficit also has an impact on workers themselves. Apart from the industrial accidents it causes, illiteracy is a source of absenteeism and demotivation.

There is the additional risk that the information society will exacerbate the exclusion of people with poor literacy skills and generate a new form of 'technological illiteracy' characterised by difficulty in interacting with new information technology systems.

In many countries the general educational system as well as the vocational training system are not prepared to provide adults with the necessary literacy and numeracy skills.