Time for the U.S. to Reskill?

by Viktoria Kis
Analyst, Skills Beyond School Division, Directorate for Education and Skills

A few decades ago young people in the United States were among the most educated in the world, but other countries have caught up. Today, despite still being relatively highly educated, the skills of adults lag behind those of adults in many other countries. This has been revealed by the new international Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), which measured the skills of adults in 24 countries.

A newly published report, Time for the U.S. to Reskill?, looks at the U.S. and draws some challenging policy conclusions. One in six adults in the U.S., about 36 million people, has weak literacy skills – they can, at best, read short texts and understand basic vocabulary. In Japan the comparable figure is one in 20. In the U.S. nearly one in three have weak numeracy skills against a cross country average of one in five.

These results are not impressive, but what is really worrying is that there are few signs of improvement. In fact the average basic skills of young adults are not very different from older persons, but if you look around the world you see a very different picture – while the overall results of the U.S. are similar to that of Poland, young Poles have better skills than their U.S. counterparts. That means that if nothing else changes, the basic skills of the Polish workforce will progressively leave the U.S. workforce behind.

Unsurprisingly, the school system appears to be one of the roots of the problem. PISA assessments show U.S. teenagers have mediocre basic skills and these are now reflected in the skills of young adults. Dramatic improvements in initial schooling are needed to turn this around. But the millions of adults have already slipped through the net also need help through effective learning opportunities for young adults, policy measures linked to employability and adult learning programs adapted to diverse needs. Not least, it is crucial to build awareness of the implications of weak basic skills, the costs of inaction and the need to tackle the challenge in the interests of all.

More encouragingly, some of the results point to pathways of opportunity. Participation in adult education is relatively high in the U.S. and many of the low-skilled who for one reason or another did not participate in learning activities express an interest in learning. The results of the survey provide much food for thought and show that this moment is also an opportunity for the U.S. – an opportunity to raise awareness of the importance of adult skills, take action and change course for the better.

Time for the U.S. to Reskill? What the Survey of Adult Skills Says
OECD Press release: Concerted Action Necessary to Address U.S. Adult Skills Challenge, says OECD
Presentation: Time for the U.S. to Reskill? What the Survey of Adult Skills Says
OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills (2013)
Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC)
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Photo credit: American construction © Shuttersctock

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