U.S. Workers Lagging Behind on Basic Skills

By Marcie Foster and Janne Huang

On October 9, 2013, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released its world report of the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), comparing the skill levels of adult workers across 24 developed countries. The report reveals that the U.S. is lagging behind other nations and must do more to strengthen skills development systems and boost economic opportunity for America’s workers.

Out of 24 countries, the U.S. ranked 16th in literacy, 21st in numeracy, and 14th in problem solving using technology (or “technology-rich environments,” according to the survey). The study found that adults that come from socioeconomically-disadvantaged backgrounds (e.g. low-income or poor educational attainment) are more likely to have lower skills. This relationship was stronger in the U.S. than in all other survey countries.

Existing research tells us that workers with low basic skills are more likely to be unemployed, earn lower than average wages, have poor health outcomes, and most importantly-pass these traits along to their children. This new data from OECD should act as a wake-up call to policymakers, demonstrating the importance of redesigning our skills development system to improve the skills of our workers and the lives of low-income families, while making America competitive in the global economy.

Postsecondary credentials are key to improving the skills of our workforce, as they remain the primary gateway to family-sustaining jobs. But frequently, our existing education and training systems (including adult education, workforce training, career-technical education and higher education systems) are poorly connected, preventing low-skilled or underprepared workers from earning postsecondary credentials and securing family-sustaining employment. An increasing number of states are addressing these barriers by developing career pathways, an approach that links education and training services to the workforce needs of employers and enables participants to advance over time to higher levels of education and employment in a given industry.

Early signs indicate that career pathways are effective, with participants more likely to earn credentials, improve their skills, and get good jobs. To support effective use of the model, CLASP launched last year the Alliance for Quality Career Pathways, a state-driven initiative to identify criteria and indicators that define high-quality career pathway systems and a set of shared performance metrics for measuring and managing their success.

In addition to building strong career pathways, it’s crucial that we make postsecondary education affordable-especially for low-income and disadvantaged students. In recent decades, college costs have risen almost four times faster than median income growth, with full-time community college students now averaging over $6,000 in unmet need. As a result, students are accumulating more and more debt and working longer hours to cover costs, leading to low academic performance and lower completion. To address this financing gap, we must better target grant and tax aid to low-income students, allow working students to keep a greater share of their earnings to cover expenses, and make students aware of the public benefits for which they are eligible.

An investment in our students and workers is an investment in America. By creating pathways to postsecondary credentials and economic success and building the skills of low-wage workers, we can create economic opportunity, strengthen families, reduce the need for government supports, and better compete in the global economy.