Taking stock of skills

It is crucial for countries competing in an advanced economy to have a skilled workforce. But with labour markets changing so fast, how can workers keep up? The OECD Skills Strategy, due to be launched in May together with a comprehensive new survey of adult competencies, will help provide answers. 

Unemployment is at record levels in the developed countries; but did you know that, in 2009 when the economic crisis was in full swing, more than 40% of employers in Australia, Japan, Mexico and Poland reported having difficulties in finding workers with the right skills for the job? Meanwhile, up to one third of workers consider themselves over-skilled for their current job, while 13% believe they are not skilled enough.

Over the past 50 years, the balance among employment sectors–and the kinds of skills those sectors require–has been shifting. From heavy manufacturing through smart technology to services, both traditional and new occupations demand more highly skilled workers. Employers’ needs for specific skills are constantly changing and difficult to predict. Since the 1980s, most countries have worked to increase the proportion of students who complete secondary education and move on to post-secondary and higher education. Higher levels of educational attainment are associated with lower rates of unemployment and higher earnings, on average. Conversely, it’s costly for governments to support poorly skilled people who are unemployed or underemployed.

But it is not easy. Even in the most economically advanced countries, large proportions of adults have poor literacy skills. According to one study, the International Adult Literacy Survey, between one-quarter and three-quarters of adults do not have what is required to cope with the demands of modern society. Meanwhile, the Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey shows that individuals who have poor foundation skills, that is, skills in literacy, numeracy and problem-solving, tend to be economically disadvantaged throughout their lives.

Even skilled workers have some cause for concern in an economic downturn. If their skills aren’t put to use, whether because of a mismatch between workers’ skills and those demanded by the job, or because individuals are out of the labour market entirely, then the resources that were invested in nurturing those skills go to waste. Worse, skills that are not used can waste away. Think of them as the muscles of the mind: use them or lose them.

Given the unpredictability of the labour market, all workers, regardless of educational level, have to be willing to learn new skills and adapt to changing demands. Young people now entering the labour market may well have to change employers and even occupations several times during their (probably longer) working lives. They have to be able to manage uncertainty and change, as well as be productive in increasingly competitive circumstances. So the skills they’ll need are not just occupation-specific, but also more general–such as basic literacy and numeracy skills, skills in problem-solving and analytic reasoning, interpersonal skills, the ability to work in teams, skills in using information and communication technologies, and, quite simply, knowing how to learn. This means that governments may have to adjust their education policies to emphasise lifelong learning, in addition to training, during the compulsory years at school.

More broadly, governments need to match skills supply with demand. Again, this is easier said than done, and to help light a way forward, the OECD Skills Strategy will be launched in May 2012. It is designed to help governments review and improve the design and implementation of their national policies relating to the demand and supply of skills.

The strategy will take a government-wide approach, with ministries of education, migration, family, science and technology, as well as employment all involved. Trade unions, employer organisations, chambers of commerce, non-governmental organisations, universities and other interested parties are also playing a part in building what will be a cost-effective, pragmatic policy instrument.

It will draw on data from tried and trusted OECD sources, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures the extent to which 15-year-old students around the world have acquired the knowledge and skills needed to participate fully in modern societies. It will also draw on a new groundbreaking study called the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), which assesses the level and distribution of skills among adults, with a focus on the workplace.

With first-round results due for release in 2013, PIAAC is simply the most comprehensive international survey of adult skills ever. It is based on interviews with some 5,000 adults aged 16 to 65 in each of 26 participating countries. The interviews, conducted between late 2011 and early 2012, aim to determine the level of their skills and how they use their skills at work and in their communities.

The assessment focuses on adults’ abilities to solve problems in technologically-rich environments, and their skills in literacy, numeracy and reading, including word recognition, vocabulary and fluency.

These projects are ambitious but necessary. If they can provide a blueprint for designing and applying policies that make the most of each country’s human capital and nurturing people’s skills, that will be an achievement indeed.


OECD (2011), Towards an OECD Skills Strategy, OECD, Paris.

OECD (2010), “The OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies”, brochure, OECD, Paris.


See also: 


The Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey 

The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment

©OECD Observer No 287 Q4 2011

Economic data


Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Suscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To receive your exclusive print editions delivered to you directly

Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • IMF Finance and Development Magazine, December 2015

    Powering the Planet: The Quest for Sustainable Energy

    Read the magazine here
    Visit their website
  • In Iceland, geothermal power is being used for almost everything. Scientists and engineers from around the world are participating in a course at the United Nations University (UNU) to learn how to use geothermal energy in their own countries.
  • They are green and local--It’s a new generation of entrepreneurs in Kenya with big dreams of sustainable energy and the drive to see their innovative technologies throughout Africa. blogs.worldbank.org
  • Pole to Paris Project
  • Send a message from #EarthToParis.
  • From the World Bank: Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty
  • Black carbon causes millions of deaths every year and contributes to the warming of the planet. The United Nations Environment Programme explains how reducing black carbon can save lives and help combat climate change.
  • In order to face global warming, Asia needs at least $40 billion per year, derived from both the public and private sector. Read how to bridge the climate financing gap on the Asian Bank of Development's website.
  • How can cities fight climate change?
    Discover projects in Denmark, Canada, Australia, Japan and Mexico.
  • 10 climate-friendly habits everyone should adopt: Although the main aim of COP21 is to reach an international agreement on climate change between government stakeholders, it is also the perfect opportunity to remind citizens of how everyone can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their day-to-day lives.
  • Climate: What's changed, what hasn't, what we can do about it.
    Lecture by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, hosted by the London School of Economics and Aviva Investors in association with ClimateWise, London, UK, 3 July 2015.
  • Do you know the OECD’s web ending? Or which Serbian American engineer is famous for his electric cars? Try our latest OECD Observer crossword. It’s full of fun facts, simplex in style, and gives you the solution at the tip of a button. You can time yourself too.
  • French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron came to the OECD on 18 September for a webcast discussion on economic reforms, inequality and the outlook, with OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. You can watch the event by clicking on the photo.

  • Climate change: “We should not disagree when scientists tell us we have a window of opportunity–10-15 years–to turn this thing around” argues Senator Bernie Sanders.

  • In the long-run, the EU benefits from migration, says OECD Head of International Migration Division Jean-Christophe Dumont.
  • Is technological progress slowing down? Is it speeding up? At the OECD, we believe the research from our Future of ‪Productivity‬ project helps to resolve this paradox.
  • An employee prepares breakfast in front of the Eiffel tower at the Parisian luxury hotel Le Plaza Athenee. Nowhere in the world has more accommodation available on Airbnb than Paris. Now the home-sharing website that has transformed budget travel is giving super-deluxe hotels a fright too.
    ©REUTERS/Stephane Mahe
  • Is inequality bad for growth? That redistribution boosts economies is not established by the evidence says FT economics editor Chris Giles. Read more on www.ft.com.
  • Low interest rates here to stay for half a century, says OECD director Adrian Blundell-Wignall.
  • Bill Gates visited the OECD on 26 June. He met with the Secretary-General Angel Gurría to discuss areas of collaboration with his foundation and participated at a briefing session on official development assistance modernisation with OECD experts.
  • The People’s Republic of China decided to enhance longstanding collaboration with the OECD and to join the OECD Development Centre, in a historic visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on 1 July to the OECD in Paris.
    Read about it on OECD.org
  • Catherine Mann, OECD Chief Economist, explains on Bloomberg why "too much bank lending can slow economic growth".
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at www.oecd.org/careers .
  • Come va la vita in Italia? How's life in Italy? The OECD Better Life Index is an interactive online platform in seven languages that goes beyond GDP by offering important insights into measuring well-being and quality of life. Try it for yourself!

Most Popular Articles


What issue are you most concerned about in 2015?

Euro crisis
Global warming
International conflict

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2015