Why skills matter

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

It’s the time of year when young people in the northern hemisphere are finishing their formal studies for the year – or for the foreseeable future. Some will soon be working at their first jobs, some are just beginning to look for a job, some may have been looking for months with nothing to show for it. What links the classroom and lecture hall to the workplace? Skills.

Three years ago, the OECD published the First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, a product of our Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC. That report found that adults who are highly proficient in the information-processing skills measured by the survey – literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments – are more likely to be employed and earn high wages. They are also more likely to report that they trust others, that they have an impact on the political processes, and that they are in good health.

Since those first results were published, nine more countries and economies have joined the survey. While the results from these countries/economies, published today in Skills Matter: Further Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, broadly confirm those from the countries/economies that participated in Round 1 of the survey, some messages have emerged more clearly.

For example, in Singapore, one of the nine countries/economies that participated in the second round of the survey, young people perform much better than older adults in all three domains assessed. While younger adults outperform their older compatriots in many of the countries/economies surveyed, in no other country is the difference between the proportion of 25-34 year-olds with tertiary education and the proportion of 55-65 year-olds who have attained that level of education as large (53 percentage points) as it is in Singapore. Only 2.4% of Singapore’s 55-65 year-olds demonstrate strong literacy skills, while young Singaporeans now benefit from one of the world’s most advanced education systems. This shows that even as Singapore expanded access to education over the past few decades, the country was able to maintain the quality of the education provided – adding further strength to the argument that expansion of education does not have to come at the expense of the quality of education.

Jakarta (Indonesia) is also among the nine Round 2 countries/economies. Although adults in Jakarta score lower in literacy and numeracy, on average, than adults in any other participating country/economy (more than one in two adults in Jakarta score at or below Level 1 in literacy), their participation in the survey confirms that valuable data on education and skills can be gathered in less economically developed countries. For example, several participating countries and economies, including Jakarta, have large populations of adults who perform poorly in literacy; but none of these populations can be said to be illiterate. How do we know that? The survey includes a special assessment for these adults to pinpoint where their difficulties in literacy lie. Most of these adults recognise words, but have trouble determining whether a sentence makes sense logically in a real-world context.

In both rounds, there is a relatively strong link between performance in the survey and in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for the age cohorts covered by both surveys. The performance of a particular age group in PISA is a reasonably good predictor of that group’s performance some years later in the Survey of Adult Skills. The message is loud and clear: if countries want a highly skilled work force, they have to get compulsory education right. This is not to say that acquiring and developing literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills stops once people leave school. In fact, the evidence shows that proficiency continues to improve over time, and that developing and maintaining – or losing – skills over a lifetime is affected by such factors as participation in work and training, which, in turn, can be influenced by policy. But school is one of the key places in which these skills are acquired, and the failings of schooling can be costly and difficult to rectify.

Skills Matter: Further Results from the Survey of Adult Skills
The Survey of Adult Skills: Reader’s Companion
OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills
For OECD work on skills: www.oecd.org/skills
Follow: #OECDSkills

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