Office of Planning and Budgeting

New OECD Study Finds America Lags Behind in Literacy, Numeracy, Technology Skills

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently released “Skills Outlook 2013,” a report that studies adults’ skills in literacy, numeracy, and technology across 24 countries. While Japan and Finland ranked first and second respectively in average scores, the United States scored significantly below average in all three fields. Many experts worry that the US will not be able to compete in a global marketplace unless we are able to improve proficiency in these skill areas.

There was not much good news for the United States in the OECD’s report: Americans ranked 16th out of 23 countries in literacy (comprehending and interpreting words, sentences and complex texts), 21st out of 23 in numeracy (solving problems in a mathematical context), and 14th out of 19 in technology skills (problem-solving using a computer). Furthermore, socioeconomic background was a greater predictor of skill proficiency in the United States than in other countries, indicating large social disparities and a low potential for upward mobility. However, socioeconomic background was less of a predictor for younger US adults, meaning (perhaps) that socioeconomic background is becoming less of a barrier with time. Lastly, not only did the US score below average in all areas, there was hardly any improvement between younger and older generations. For numeracy, older US adults (ages 55-65) performed near the average, but younger US adults (ages 16-24) scored dead last among all participating countries. This last point is particularly concerning as it suggests young people are entering a much more demanding labor market, but are not much better prepared than those who are retiring.

These disappointing results raise an interesting question: if the US has such a dearth of skilled workers, how is it able to remain an innovative and productive economy? Anthony Carnevale, from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, believes it is because the US compensates the most talented and skilled workers exceptionally well, which attracts significant foreign talent and creates great innovation and growth from the top down. However, as growth in the future will likely require more skills at every level of the economy, the American advantage could be slipping. The authors suggest that better educational opportunities and better training in the workplace will be necessary to reduce social inequities, improve upward mobility, and thus avoid economic stagnation. While the report finds that more education is correlated with higher skill proficiency, the quality of education in different countries can differ to the extent that a 25-34 year old high school graduate from Japan exhibits better skill proficiency than a college graduate from Spain. This suggests that adults can learn important skills outside of the traditional educational track—through better job training, adult education, and skill certification and recognition.  

For more information, check out the full OECD report, or analysis by Inside Higher Ed and the New York Times.

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