College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

U.S. Workforce Skills: Even Worse Than We Thought

By Marc Tucker — March 17, 2016 2 min read

The National Center for Education Statistics recently released a new report on the skills of the U.S. workforce in the form of a supplement to the existing Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) study that was released in 2012. These new data were collected in 2013 and 2014 and once again measure U.S. workers’ literacy, numeracy and digital problem solving skills.

These new data and analyses give us a more detailed look at the most recent PIAAC survey as well as deeper context for looking at those results. But there is nothing in the new report that would change most observers’ reactions to the last report. The picture remains bleak for U.S. workers: The U.S. scored about average in literacy, near the bottom in numeracy and dead last in digital problem solving, or as the OECD calls it, problem solving in technology rich environments.

In today’s global labor market, companies can choose their workers from among dozens of countries. In this highly competitive environment, American workers are at an enormous disadvantage. First, a smaller proportion of our students graduate from high school. Second, even those who do graduate perform poorly relative to their competitors in other countries on the OECD PISA survey of high school students. It should not surprise us that the skills of our graduating high school students predict the skills of our adult workers. The PIAAC data show us what those adult workers know and can do. It is exactly what the high school data predict.

American workers’ scores on reading are not statistically different from those of the average for workers in the other countries surveyed, but their scores on mathematics and problem solving are among the lowest in all countries surveyed. We know that the performance of American high school students on the PISA surveys is declining relative to the performance of students in the other PISA countries, so it should not surprise us that nothing in this time series data suggests that young adults in our workforce are not performing any better than our older workers.

What is truly surprising in this data is the fact that American workers score dead last among all the nations surveyed, in “problem solving in technology-rich environments.” This refers to the use of common productivity tools like spreadsheets to perform common workplace tasks. This despite the fact that the U.S. is among the world’s largest spenders on education technology for our schools.

What has not changed is the finding that American workers, once the best educated in the world, are now among the least well educated in the industrialized world.

I continue to believe that this is now turning out to be the central fact—the elephant in the room—in the current presidential campaign. We now live in a world in which what you make is—to an unprecedented degree—a function of what you know. If it is indeed true that a growing number of Americans know less than their counterparts and competitors in many other parts of the world, and they are charging more for their services than workers with comparable skills elsewhere, then they are at a crippling competitive disadvantage. That has economic consequences and those economic consequences are now turning into political consequences. The United States is now just beginning to see those consequences play out in the current presidential race.

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