Talent Management Column

A Failing Grade

What's causing Americans' skills to fall well behind those of other countries after they leave school? For the answer, you don't need to look outside the workplace.

Thursday, December 5, 2013
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Yes, another international ranking, this time not of students but of employees. The Paris-based Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development has a new report looking at skills related to workforce tasks across countries by examining their current workforces. While student assessments obviously look only at students in school, this new study examines representative cross-sections of all workers, most of whom left school decades ago.

The report is known as the "Survey of Adult Skills," but in case you want to look it up, the formal name is The Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies. It looks at three skill sets that are generally useful, especially in a more information-based -- as opposed to mechanical -- age.

The survey also has a pretty academic bent, polling individuals via paper-and-pencil-type tests. The results were released a few months ago, and they got some attention in the press then. But the point I'm going to make about them was not made then, so stay with me.

The first assessment in the survey is literacy, which, as you'd think, is the ability to read and process written information. How did the United States do on that one?

It finished 17th out of 24 countries, thanks, which puts it well below average.

OK, let's move on to the second one: numeracy. Here, the test ranges from simple arithmetic (counting) to using statistical concepts and other forms of math that a liberal-arts-college graduate might be expected to know.

How did the United States do on that one?

22nd out of 24 countries.

Moving on.

The final category is problem-solving in the context of using information technology. Can you use computers to solve basic problems, such as searching for data? The test did not require programming skills or any IT-specific knowledge. It was designed to test users of IT, not IT workers.

How did the United States do on this one?

14th out of 24.

Still below average, but not as awful.  

When this report came out, the immediate reaction was to bash the academic preparation of our workforce, to run through the common "schools are failing" rhetoric. Here is why that conclusion is wrong.

First, recent school leavers make up a very small percentage of the labor force in any country, maybe 2 percent or so each year. Most everyone tested in the study has been out of school for a long time -- decades, typically. So if you think failing schools were the problem, the failures would need to have been decades ago. And the compelling evidence is that student achievement in the United States has been getting slowly but steadily better for decades.

The second point concerns the comparison across age groups within the same country. When we compare young workers ages 16 to 24 to older American workers, what do we see? Their scores are a little worse than those ages 25 to 44, perhaps not surprising as the former group, by definition, has fewer college attendees and a little better than those who are older than 44. But overall, the younger group scores a bit higher than their older U.S. colleagues, once again countering the idea that schools are getting worse. The older age groups in America score a little better (as compared to their similar age peers in other countries) than do our 16- to 24-year-olds, but not by all that much.

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Younger workers across all countries other than the United States perform much better on these tests than do their older counterparts, suggesting widespread upgrading of skills over the generations. The outlier is the United States, where this has not happened.

Why is that? Certainly it's true that, since World War II, many countries that did not have high education standards have raised them considerably. But it is not all about education. Here's how we know that.

U.S. students do better in academic achievement compared to students in other countries than our average worker does in these skill tests compared to workers in other countries, even adjusting for the fact that the countries are different in the student and workforce studies. (The OECD's Programme for International Assessment of Student Achievement puts the reading ability of U.S. high-school students at 17 out of 65, much better than average, and 31 out of 65 in math. Many of the worst-performing countries in this study are not in the skills study, though, which keeps them from being strictly comparable.)  

This suggests that something happens to people after leaving school that is different in America than in other countries, and that difference causes their skills to fall well behind those of other countries. Most likely, the cause is less training and development of employees in the U.S. workplace after employees leave school, as compared to other countries.

Or perhaps our workplaces don't make as much use of those skills in ways that would develop them as compared to other countries.

Whichever it is, the finger points to the workplace.

Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School. His latest book is Why Good People Can't Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It.



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