Americans Lag in Workplace Skills

American workers trail far behind global standards in some modern workplace skills, such as basic math and the ability to work with technology, according to a new international survey. Some experts believe the shift reflects shortfalls in the U.S. education system.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Write To The Editor Reprints scores for Americans ranked near the bottom of multi-country lists in numeracy and technology skills in a survey released this month by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international coalition based in Paris. Statistics incorporate results from about 166,000 people ages 16 to 65 in 24 countries.

"The challenge for the United States is not new," says William Thorn, project manager for the study. He cites previous international assessments, such as the organization's 2005 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, which found that large proportions of the U.S. adult population have poor literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills.

"However, the results for the youngest cohort [16 to 24 years of age] are particularly concerning," he says. American participants in that age range had the lowest average proficiency in numeracy among their international counterparts, the study shows.

In scores related to problem-solving in technology-rich environments, the U.S. was at or near the lowest mean in all proficiency levels in the survey, administered in 2011 and 2012.

"Low levels of literacy, numeracy and problem-solving ability among the workforce has the potential, over the long run, to hamper the introduction of productivity-enhancing technologies and forms of work organization as well as changes in business strategy," Thorn says. "It also is likely to limit the capacity of individuals to adapt to changes in labor demand."

The results fall in line with a talent mismatch expected to evolve over the next decade according to research by Oxford Economics, in partnership with global consulting firm Towers Watson. That study suggests that, as the skills employers require become more complex, labor shortages will arise in mature markets, including the United States, Germany, Canada and Italy, while developing countries -- India, Indonesia, Colombia and South Africa -- will see an abundance of skilled workers.

The shift reflects shortfalls in the U.S. education system, says Ravin Jesuthasan, global practice leader for talent management at Towers Watson in New York.

"In the U.S, we see one of the largest shortfalls of any country in the world," he says. "Look at where the U.S. economy was in the '50s and the education system relative to other countries. We had a much better system then."

Jesuthasan says HR will have to think creatively in order to plug their organizations' immediate skills gaps.

One challenge for HR, he says, is to think creatively in order to solve work-flow issues.

"Can we look at other countries, third parties, etc., to get work done?" he asks rhetorically. "Not necessarily from employment, but through other means?"

Careful planning can help HR adjust to a changing talent supply over the next three-to-five years, he says.

"One of the questions that have been asked is, 'How do we re-skill?' " he says. "It is not a big step to re-skill a chemical engineer to become a petroleum engineer."

Aside from re-skilling workers, though, he says long-term answers lie with partnerships.

"The education sector, the government sector and business sector will have to ensure that the supply in talent is specifically mindful of supplying skilled talent for the future," he says.

Lifting U.S. talent to global standards will require strategy, says Paul Rubenstein, partner with Aon Hewitt.

"Think about most businesses and their supply chain," he says. "What do they do with copper? What do they do with the raw materials to make gasoline? They ensure the supply of it, the quality. They don't relinquish control of the supply of raw materials. They do everything they can to secure it. That same thing does not happen with the labor supply in the United States.

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"For many businesses," he says, "we have this disconnected nature between what we're producing in education and what the workforce needs."

Businesses need to determine what skills will become critical and push government and educational institutions to create supply, Rubenstein says, citing a client who worked directly with a university to create a hedge fund accounting program, helping design a curriculum and offering likely employment to successful students.

"HR has to be good at labor forecasting," he says, "... and HR has a responsibility to get as deep as they can into the talent supply chain to ensure that the right set of skills will be available when they're needed."

He says the most important thing is "getting ahead of the issue and taking control of your labor supply by understanding what you're going to need and partnering with institutions and being transparent with it, creating a new deal, saying: 'If you study this, we can give you jobs.'"

The OECD survey results are not likely to surprise any American HR leaders, says Ron Selewach, CEO and founder of Tampa, Fla.-based Human Resource Management Center, which performs automated candidate interviews.

"We keep hearing the same thing," he says.

Community colleges, Selewach says, often are more open to partnerships with companies to provide training for workers or create programs designed to graduate appropriately skilled candidates.

Right now, he says, the key to hiring better-skilled employees is breaking down jobs and not assuming degrees, certifications or even experience create an ideal applicant.

"Hiring managers often hire the best resume writer," Selewach says. "But [candidates] have to understand what the job is meant to deliver. What you need to look at is, 'Can they do the job? Will they do the job? Will they fit in?'

"I used to take top candidates on a tour and listen as much to the questions they were asking as the information I was giving them," he says. "It was really telling me whether they understood what they were seeing."

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