For the first time, the OECD Survey of Adult Skills allows us to directly measure the skills people currently have, not just the qualifications they once obtained. The results show what people know—and what they do with what they know—has a major impact on their life chances.
Poor skills severely limit people’s access to better-paying and more rewarding jobs. On average across countries, the median wage worker’s ability to make complex inferences and evaluate subtle arguments in written texts is more than 60 percent higher than hourly wage workers who can, at best, read relatively short texts and understand basic vocabulary. Those with poor literacy skills are also more than twice as likely to be unemployed.
The distribution of skills has significant implications for how the benefits of economic growth are shared within countries. If large shares of adults have poor skills, it becomes difficult to introduce productivity-enhancing technologies and new ways of working. And that can stall improvements in living standards.
Proficiency in basic skills affects more than earnings and employment. In all countries, adults with lower literacy skills are far more likely to suffer poor health, perceive themselves as objects rather than actors in political processes, and have less trust in others. In other words, we can’t develop fair and inclusive policies and engage with all citizens if a lack of proficiency in basic skills prevents people from fully participating in society.
The case for acquiring and maintaining literacy skills is clear, but people’s proficiency varies widely. Roughly one in five adults in Japan and Finland reads at the highest levels on our test. In contrast, in Italy and Spain just one in 20 adults is proficient at that level, and more than one in three adults performs at or below the baseline level. Even highly literate nations have significant shallow areas in their talent pools. Across the 24 countries that took the test, more than 80 million people do not possess the most basic skills needed to succeed in today’s world. On top of that, in the United States, Poland, Germany, Italy, and England, a difficult social background often translates into poor literacy skills.
Yet some countries have made impressive progress in equipping more people with better skills. Young Koreans, for example, are outperformed only by their Japanese counterparts, while Korea’s 55–64-year-olds are among the three lowest-performing groups of this age across all participating countries. The results from Finland tell a similar story. But young Brits and Americans are entering a much more demanding job market with similar literacy and numeracy skills as the seniors who are now retiring. Unless urgent action is taken both to improve schooling and to provide adults with better opportunities to develop and maintain their skills, the global talent pool will include fewer and fewer Americans in the next few decades.
What our data also shows is that actual skill levels often differ markedly from what formal education qualifications suggest: Italy, Spain, and the United States rank much higher internationally in the share of young people with tertiary degrees than in the level of literacy or numeracy proficiency among people of that age. On average, young Japanese and Dutch high school graduates easily outperform university graduates in some other countries. In fact, in most countries at least one-quarter of university graduates are insufficiently equipped for what their jobs demand of them. There are many reasons why skills and qualifications differ, but these data suggest that we may need to update and redefine our education qualifications.
We can’t change the past, but we can do something about our future. The Nordic countries, the Netherlands, and Canada have been much better at providing high-quality lifelong learning opportunities, in and outside the workplace, than other countries. They’ve developed programs that are relevant to users and are flexible, both in content and in how they are delivered. They’ve made information about adult education opportunities easy to find and understand, and they’ve provided recognition and certification of competencies that encourage adult learners to keep learning. They’ve also made skills everybody’s business: governments, employers, and individuals are all engaged.
Skills are only valuable when they are used effectively, and the OECD Skills Survey shows that some countries are far better than others in making good use of their talent. While the United States and England have a limited skills base, they are extracting good value from it. The reverse is true for Japan, where rigid labor market arrangements prevent many skilled individuals, notably women, from reaping the rewards that should accrue to them. Over-reliance on qualifications can also make it harder for those who have the right skills, but didn’t have the same access to education as others, to land jobs where their skills can be fully put to use. Our data show that this is particularly true among migrant workers.
about the author
Andreas Schleicher is Deputy Director for Education and Skills, and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary-General. He also provides strategic oversight over OECD’s work on the development and utilisation of skills and their social and economic outcomes. This includes the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) and the development and analysis of benchmarks on the performance of education systems (INES).
Before joining the OECD, he was Director for Analysis at the International Association for Educational Achievement (IEA). He studied Physics in Germany and received a degree in Mathematics and Statistics in Australia. He is the recipient of numerous honours and awards, including the “Theodor Heuss” prize, awarded in the name of the first president of the Federal Republic of Germany for “exemplary democratic engagement”. He holds an honorary Professorship at the University of Heidelberg.