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Reading & Literacy

Are Our Jobs Making Us Dumber?

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 26, 2017 | Corrected: September 06, 2018 6 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story should have said Murray was working with schools in the city of Toronto, in Ontario, Canada.

Employers increasingly demand complex literacy skills from students, but new studies in the United States and Canada suggest that many young people entering the workforce may lose those skills before they can use them.

From 2003 to 2011, the average literacy score for Americans ages 26 to 35 dropped 14 points, equal to more than a half year of schooling, according to a series of recent studies in the United States and Canada. That was the largest drop of all age groups, but American and Canadian men and women of every age lost ground during that time, even though both countries now have among the highest levels of educational attainment in the world.

T. Scott Murray, the international study director of the International Adult Literacy Survey, or IALS, and the Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey, ALL, and the senior adviser of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development for adult skill assessment, led the newer studies. He believes that even in jobs where workers have not been replaced by machines, the use of automation may be “dumbing down” jobs in ways that separate the most highly skilled workers from all others.

Murray and other education and workforce researchers argue that schools should be working to both make students’ higher skills more visible to employers—so they know students are capable of more complex work—and help students learn to continue reinforcing their skills after graduation.

“Bottom line, in both Canada and the United States, we have put all our eggs in the college basket. If we get participation rates up high enough, … that’s a good start, but we ignore the market efficiency with what skills are developed,” he said. “The skills students have are mostly invisible to employers; they are still using credentials that don’t say much about what a student can do. If employers do not create jobs that are skill-intensive, then workers’ literacy skills will degrade through lack of use.”

Murray and colleagues at the Canadian research firm DataAngel compared the literacy skills of matched comparison groups of test-takers in 2003 and 2011, based on age, gender, education level, and other background characteristics. They used two aligned international literacy tests: the 2003 ALLS and the 2011 Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), administered by the OECD. Each test is given to nationally representative samples of adults in each country who are ages 16 to 65 to gauge their literacy levels across a wide range of activities, including analyzing news articles and maps, understanding administrative forms or tables, and comparing the terms on different mortgage offers. Both tests use the same 500-point scale and have been linked through common items.

They found, as did prior research, that the more education people had, the higher their initial literacy gains after college; those who earned a college degree were more likely to see literacy gains than those with only a high school diploma. But the studies also found that adults who had earned a postgraduate degree—"people judged to be central to participation in the emerging knowledge economy,” according to the studies—were the only ones who continued to improve their literacy skills, by about 3 points on average, over the 2003-2011 study period.

By contrast, the greatest skill loss seemed to be among young professionals who had earned associate or bachelor’s degrees, Murray said.

Murray’s studies do not follow a single cohort over time, but Stephen Reder, a professor of adult and digital literacy at Portland State University in Oregon, said the results are similar to his own previous longitudinal studies of adults.

“As I look cross-nationally in education systems, one of the things that strikes me about the U.S. is how little public lifelong-learning policy we have. It’s very piecemeal, left up to the private sector,” Reder said. “K-12 is very, very important, but once people leave K-12 or K-16, they are in the workplace for 40 or 50 years, and we don’t have systematic policies and programs to support lifelong learning.”

Prior research has shown technology boosts the average skill level of a worker doing a job, because it automates any task that is repeatable, leaving people responsible for the tasks that require higher skills, according to Anthony Carnevale, a research professor and the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, who was not associated with the studies.

How to Maintain Your Skills After Entering the Workforce

Researchers linked some on-the-job tasks to better maintenance of literacy skills:

• Learning new skills at work

• Sharing work-related information

• Teaching people

• Planning one’s own activities

• Influencing people

• Solving complex problems

“Maybe what you’ve got here is ... there’s a section of the labor force that has been relegated to lower-skilled jobs,” Carnevale said. “The machinist who lost the machinist job is now probably not working in the same place and may be in a job where the skill level is not growing.”

For example, Murray pointed to manufacturing workers in West Virginia. In the past 15 years, the average worker has seen his wages increase only $394 during that time, in part because of rising automation of lower- and medium-skilled jobs. But those at the highest skill level have had their wages increase by $8,825. “Those people at the top, because of automation, are supposed to be way more productive, because they have higher skills—but they are also in very short supply,” Murray said.

Murray is working with schools in the city of Toronto, in Ontario, Canada, to encourage teaching students more critical thinking and problem-solving skills in reading, while Reder has been helping a coalition of 63 communities in California, Louisiana, Minnesota, New York, and Texas that are building a database of free, self-paced, online courses to improve digital and higher literacy skills for homeless, immigrant, and other vulnerable adults.

“The change on the job is much faster than it was before, much more fluid,” Carnevale said. “The learning requirements increase and don’t ever stop. If they do stop, you are in the wrong occupation and are going to be in trouble.”

The gap between the number of highly skilled workers and the numbers of jobs requiring them has kept wages high, he said, but it also makes it more likely that employers will continue pushing to automate or simplify any part of a job that can be, creating even less opportunity for workers to build skills over time.

Murray and his colleagues found that workers’ skill loss or gain was associated with how often they planned their own activities, influenced people, engaged in complex, nonroutine problem-solving, and performed other mentally demanding tasks. Mentally demanding jobs generally required literacy skills at the highest or second highest levels measured by PIAAC, including the ability to apply reading skills, think critically, and solve complex problems.

“Some firms are [adding training], mostly out of desperation because they are afraid they will go out of business due to competition,” Murray said. “But most are still chugging along merrily; they didn’t have to think about training much before, and now that the game has changed, most of them don’t even have a way of thinking about it.”

In the United States alone, Carnevale estimates that adult workers and their employers now spend $300 billion on informal training, but K-12 education, even career education, is generally not aligned to it.

“We talk about career pathways a lot in K-12, but they are generally thought of as single paths, single careers, and that doesn’t meet the needs of a lot of workers now,” said Reder, who was not part of Murray’s study. “When people go to college, they don’t necessarily know where they are going to be working five years after college, much less 25 years after they get out.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 2017 edition of Education Week as Are Our Jobs Making Us Less Literate?

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