What will the global talent pool look like in 2020?

by Pedro Garcia de León, Corinne Heckmann, and Gara Rojas González 
Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education

The “global talent pool” can be described in a lot of different ways.  But in an era in which having a higher (tertiary) education is increasingly a minimum requirement for successful entry into the labour force, one way to quantify it is to look at the number of people around the world who are obtaining a higher education degree.

As the latest issue of the OECD’s series Education Indicators in Focus details, by that measure, the global talent pool is exploding across OECD and G20 countries. What’s more, it’s likely to grow far larger by the year 2020.

In the last decade alone, the number of younger adults with higher education degrees has grown at a remarkably fast clip. This is particularly true for non-OECD G20 countries like Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia and South Africa, where the number of 25-34 year-olds with a higher education degree increased from 39 million in 2000 to an estimated 64 million in 2010. By contrast, the number of younger adults with higher education degrees in OECD countries increased from 51 million to an estimated 66 million during the same period.

In addition, the rapid expansion of higher education in non-OECD G20 countries has significantly altered the distribution of the talent pool among countries. A decade ago, one in six 25-34 year-olds with a higher education degree was from the United States, and a similar proportion was from China. Twelve percent came from the Russian Federation, and about 10% each were from Japan and India. But by 2010, China was at the head of the pack, according to OECD estimates, accounting for 18% of 25-34 year-olds with a tertiary education.  The United States followed with 14%, the Russian Federation and India each had 11%, and Japan had 7%. 

These trends are likely to intensify further in the years ahead. According to OECD projections, there will be more than 200 million 25-34 year-olds with higher education degrees across all OECD and G20 countries by the year 2020 – and 40% of them will be from China and India alone. By contrast, the United States and the European Union countries are expected to account for just over a quarter of young people with tertiary degrees in OECD and G20 countries. 

In fact, these figures may underestimate the future growth of the global talent pool, because a number of countries – notably China, the European Union countries, and the U.S. – are pursuing initiatives to increase higher education attainment rates even further. 

The explosive growth of the  talent pool raises a key question: With all of these highly-educated people emerging around the world, will the global labour market be able to absorb the increased supply?  
Evidence from science and technology occupations – key “knowledge economy” jobs – suggests that it can. Between 1998 and 2008, employment in science and technology occupations increased at a faster rate than total employment in all OECD and G20 countries with available data. The average annual growth rate was uniformly positive, ranging from 0.3% in China to 5.9% in Iceland. 

This consistently upward trend signals that the demand for employees in this knowledge economy sector hasn’t reached its ceiling. Applied to the overall labour market, the implication is that individuals from increasingly better-educated populations will continue to have good employment outcomes, as long as national economies continue to become more knowledge-based.  

As such, countries may be well-advised to pursue efforts to build their knowledge economies, in order to avoid skills mismatches and lower returns on education among their higher-educated populations in the future.

For more information
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus: www.oecd.org/education/indicators 
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2011: OECD Indicators: www.oecd.org/edu/eag2011 
On the OECD’s Indicators of Education Systems (INES) programme, visit:
INES Programme overview brochure (link)

See also: IMHE General Conference 2012 “Attaining and Sustaining Mass Higher Education”, Paris, 17-19 September 2012
Chart source: OECD Database, UNESCO and National Statistics websites for Argentina,
China, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

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