OECD Report Ranks U.S. Skills Near the Bottom

October 8, 2013

What do adults in Japan, Finland, the Netherlands, Australia, and Sweden and seven other countries have in common? They score better in literacy than U.S. adults.

Okay, want to feel better about yourself? U.S. adults have better mathematics skills than adults in Italy and Spain! ... but they trail adults in the other 23 countries and regions measured by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

OECD’s inaugural report, The Survey of Adult Skills, “assesses the proficiency of adults from age 16 onwards in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments.” The results are eye-opening.

  • The U.S. ranks 16th for literacy proficiency,

  • 21st in numeracy proficiency, and

  • 17th in problem solving in technology-rich environments.

The OECD is the same organization that produces the influential reportProgramme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, which measures student outcomes in OECD countries. Regrettably, United States ranks poorly there, too.

According to the report—and this is no surprise—skills “transform lives, generate prosperity and promote social inclusion. Without the right skills, people are kept at the margins of society, technological progress does not translate into economic growth, and enterprises and countries can’t compete in today’s globally connected and increasingly complex world.”

In other words, high-skilled individuals will continue to prosper, while low-skilled workers will be left behind.

As technology becomes more sophisticated and ubiquitous, individuals with “poor literacy and numeracy skills are more likely to find themselves at risk. Poor proficiency in information-processing skills limits adults’ access to many basic services, to better-paying and more-rewarding jobs, and to the possibility of participating in further education and training.”

Additionally, a low-skilled workforce has a dramatic effect on a country’s economy and competitiveness.

According to the report, “per capita incomes are higher in countries with larger proportions of adults who reach the highest levels of literacy or numeracy proficiency and with smaller proportions of adults at the lowest levels of proficiency.”

If the U.S. is to compete globally, we must turn these numbers around. And we are not going to do this by continuing to educate the same way we did in the 1950s. Technology has changed. Jobs have changed. Competition has changed. The economy has changed.

The question is, are we going to change the way we educate and train our workforce to meet the demands of the 21st century economy, or are we going to continue to see the United States slip further while our competitors continue to outperform us?

Mark D'Alessio is communications manager at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's Education and Workforce program.