Do we have the skills we need to succeed?

Here’s a sobering statistic: in around 20 of the world’s wealthiest countries, at least one in 10 adults can make sense of only basic texts. Ask them a question based on a piece of writing, and they’ll be able to answer only if the text is short, uses simple vocabulary and provides clues by repeating words used in the question. 

“Okay,” you’re thinking, “not great, but at least the other nine must be able to read pretty well, right?” Not so: that figure of one in 10 is just a minimum. In some of the world’s rich`est countries, more than a third of adults struggle with anything other than basic texts.

These findings come from a new report, the OECD Skills Outlook 2013. It represents a first attempt by the OECD to gauge literacy, numeracy and problem-solving abilities among adults and extends the work of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which assesses the knowledge and skills of high school students. If you’re familiar with PISA, you’ll know its results are closely watched around the world, especially the relative rankings of the 70 or so countries that take part. The new Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIACC), otherwise known as the adult skills survey, is likely to attract similar interest, although it covers a much smaller group of around 24 countries.

The results show substantial variations in skill levels between countries. In Japan and Finland, for example, roughly one in five adults score at the highest levels for literacy. By contrast, in Italy and Spain the proportion falls to as low as one in 20. Why do these findings matter? As the OECD Insights blog has noted before, demand for skilled workers is rising in today’s economies at the expense of less skilled workers. There’s further evidence of this phenomenon in today’s OECD report. Compared with people with high levels of literacy, those on the low end of the spectrum are more than twice as likely to be unemployed. The survey also shows that low-skilled people are more likely to suffer poor health. And it’s not just individuals who suffer: low skill levels, or the failure to make the most of the available talent, hold back national economies, too.

Much of the attention around the report is likely to focus on how countries rank compared to each other. On the main measure for literacy, for example, Japan, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands take the top four places while, among OECD countries, the other end of the scale is occupied by Ireland, France, Spain and Italy. The pattern is the same for numeracy, with the exception of France, which yields its place in the bottom four to the United States.

When it comes to using computers, at least one in 10 adults lack basic skills but, again, there are big variations between countries. In Sweden, only around one in 50 adults who took part in the survey said they had never used a computer; in Italy, that proportion rose to just under one in four.

But country comparisons form only a small part of the findings. There’s also a wealth of data on how people develop their skills and abilities, how they put them to use and how factors like poverty and social background shape skills development. Some of the findings are, to put it mildly, surprising. For example, the survey suggests we need to rethink the assumption that more education automatically translates into higher skills. According to the OECD Skills Outlook 2013, young adults in Japan and the Netherlands with only high school education “easily outperform Italian or Spanish university graduates of the same age”.

As the first in a planned series, this survey in some ways poses as many questions as it answers: why, for instance, is social background–family wealth, in other words–a major factor in shaping skill levels in some countries, but not in others? And why are skill levels rising with each generation in some countries, but apparently stagnating in others, such as the US and the UK? It will be interesting to see the answers and analysis that emerge in response to such questions in the years to come. Brian Keeley

This article is adapted from Find out more about the 2013 Survey of Adults Skills (PIACC) at  

© OECD Observer No 296 Q3 2013

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