Lagging Workforce Skills: We’re Not Alone!

I’d be a very rich man if I had a dollar for every time I heard a business executive gripe about workforce quality.   However, there is some validity to these complaints, and as a new Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study shows, the U.S. is not alone on this front.  The first-ever OECD Survey of Adult Skills assessed the skills of the adult workforce in 24 OECD countries.  The findings are pretty sobering.   In most countries, large portions of the workforce (anywhere from 5% to 30% depending on the issue) lack basic literacy, numeracy and information technology skills.  Similarly, only a small portion of the workforce (between 3% and 8% depending on the country) score at the highest levels in problem-solving, often considered the key workforce skill.

Each country presents a different pattern, but some common themes emerge.  Younger workers are generally more proficieint, and not surprisingly, both higher education and proficiency levels are correlated with higher wages and higher productivity. 

Profiles and data tables for each country are available.  Finland, Japan, and the Netherlands are top performers in many categories.    Overall, U.S. workers fall in the middle of these skill rankings.  Within this broad outline, the study highlights some very disturbing trends.   The U.S. has a strong cohort of high proficiency-high skill workers, but also has a much larger than average cohort of low proficiency-low skill workers.   In the U.S., socioeconomic background is more directly associated with later skill levels than in other OECD nations.  In addiiton,  U.S. low skill workers are less likely to participate in education and training programs and to suffer from health and well-being challenges than their counterparts in other nations.   These results suggest that skills upgrade efforts must be comprehensive and holistic–they cannot simply address a single skill or topic area; they need to address the range of issues that create challenges for lower skill/lower proficiency workers.

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