Study Shows Americans Falling Behind The World In Skill Attainment

A lack of American commitment to education and training means the nation’s workers are losing their competitive edge.
By @FrederickReese |
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    (Photo/Prince Lang via Flickr)

    (Photo/Prince Lang via Flickr)

    There are few things both Democrats and Republicans agree upon. One of these things is the common faith in the American worker. In multiple speeches, President Barack Obama has expressed that “we should never forget that our workers are still more productive than any on Earth” and that “I know this: Americans and American workers build better products than anybody else.” Republicans, in their 2012 party platform, said, “American workers have shown that, on a truly level playing field, they can surpass the competition in international trade”, while even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has stated, “America’s workers, entrepreneurs, and companies are the best in the world. They can outwork, outthink, and outproduce anyone if they have the freedom to pursue their dreams and if government policies encourage and reward their success.”

    As it turns out, this blind faith may be misplaced, ignoring the growing skills gap between the nation’s high-skilled and low-skilled workers.

    According to a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), not only is the skill level of the American working populace slipping compared with the international market, but are also significantly beneath where levels should be to maintain competitiveness.

    In reading, math and problem-solving with technology — such as determining the mileage reimbursement for a salesman, sorting emails or comparing food expiration dates on grocery store tags — Americans scored less than the international average, according to results published Tuesday. Japan, Canada, Australia, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands were among the nations that outscored the United States dramatically. Austria, Denmark, Germany and the United Kingdom scored on par with the U.S. It was determined that as much as 10 percent of the working population had insufficient computer skills, such as knowing how to use a computer mouse.


    Skills and socioeconomics

    While this test not only found that the United States isn’t keeping up educationally with its international competitors, it also confirms the link between socioeconomic standing and educational attainment. In the reading and math tests, for example, test-takers who had college-educated parents scored better than test-takers whose parents did not complete high school.

    The study showed that among the 20 participating nations that were tested, the nations that were hit the hardest by the debt crisis — Italy and Spain — scored the lowest. Spain has significantly cut education spending as part of its recession-triggered austerity program. Meanwhile, Japanese and Dutch test-takers aged 25 to 34 whose highest educational attainment level was high school proved to be more skilled than Italian and Spanish university graduates of the same age.

    The nations that fared the best through the recession — such as the Scandinavian countries — fared equally well on the OECD test. These countries place a significant investment in skill retention efforts, such as continuing education, in which more that 60 percent of all of Finland’s, Denmark’s and the Netherland’s adults participate.

    “It’s not just the kids who require more and more preparation to get access to the economy, it’s more and more the adults don’t have the skills to stay in it,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

    As the composition of the American workplace evolves, minimal-skill jobs are increasingly being automated or outsourced abroad. Without a valid mechanism to retrain these increasingly disposable workers, the nation’s pool of unemployed and underemployed will continue to swell — stretching the coffers of the nation’s social programs. Simultaneously, the lack of skilled workers would leave many high-skilled positions vacant — compromising the nation’s productivity and making industry dependant on stop-gap measures, such as the guest worker program.

    “There is a race between man and machine here. The question here is always: Are you a worker for whom technology makes it possible to do a better job or are you a worker that the technology can replace?” said Jacob Kirkegaard, an economist with the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “If you want to avoid having an underclass — a large group of people who are basically unemployable — this educational system is absolutely key.”

    There are a reported three million jobs that are vacant in the United States right now, despite higher-than-usual unemployment numbers. Despite an increase in enrollment in job training programs, a large number of skill-critical manufacturing- and STEM- (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) heavy jobs remain unfilled due to the fact that many applicants lack the necessary post-secondary education credentials.

    “Many low-wage workers and others who lack post-secondary credentials already possess valuable skills that aren’t reflected on a résumé,” wrote former President Bill Clinton in a feature for Bloomberg Businessweek. “Getting people into courses or credentialing programs recognized by employers will allow job seekers both to better develop skills and to demonstrate them to employers.”


    The growing educational gap

    The test reveals that this skill attainment problem is a relatively new one. Among test-takers 55 to 65 years old, the United States was near the top of the charts, compared with its international counterparts. However, in the 45- to 55-years-old range, the United States was on par with the international average and fell beneath the average for 44 years old and younger.

    “The first question these kinds of studies raise is, ‘If we’re so dumb, why are we so rich?’ ” said Carnevale. “Our economic advantage has been having high skill levels at the top, being big, being more flexible than the other economies, and being able to attract other countries’ most skilled labor. But that advantage is slipping.”

    The test shows that American graduate and professional degree-holders have a skill level just shy of the international average. However, for those at the bottom of the educational attainment ladder — those who didn’t complete high school — the test found to be toward the bottom of the international skills comparison. The lifetime earnings-difference between higher-skilled worked and low-skilled workers can be more than 60 percent.

    “These kinds of differences in skill sets matter a lot more than they used to, at every level of the economy,” Carnevale continued. “Americans were always willing to accept a much higher level of inequality than other developed countries because there was upward mobility, but we’ve lost a lot of ground to other countries on mobility because people don’t have these skills.”


    America’s burden

    With an increasing amount of funding being taken away from the nation’s educational system on the state and local level, it is unclear if or how the United States can pull itself out of this tailspin. In the last century and a half, the United States — on the weight of its innovation — re-invented the world. The telegraph, the telephone, the mass-produced automobile, television, the transistor, satellite communication, fiber optics, the electronic computer, the Internet — these are all just a quick sampling of the innovations America produced in the 19th and 20th centuries.

    Humanity, as a whole, is buoyed by America’s ingenuity, which makes the OECD report so disturbing. It’s obvious that, given the opportunity, other nations will step up and create great innovations. But, in the history of world, no nation made as many significant changes to the world and society as a whole as the United States. It’s unreasonable to think any other nation could replace the United States — if one could, why hasn’t it done so yet?

    If America’s industrial engine seizes up, the whole world will suffer. The OECD report is not so much a rebuke of the U.S. as an opportunity for the nation to wake up. The situation with the nation’s skill deficit requires not only a discussion of educational priorities but social priorities as well. A single mother with two kids and two jobs will not be willing to give up two hours a night in a continuing education class. That same mother would also be less able to spend the time to check on her children’s homework, participate in extracurricular activities with her children or join in-class or school programs — she simply wouldn’t have the time or energy, despite her desire to do so.

    The nation needs to have a honest conversation on not only the long-term effects of educational cuts, but on how cutting the social programs needed to make education attainable can undercut skill accessibility for the poor. The nation is standing on the edge of the abyss: without a full commitment to the education of future Americans, the nation may never be as economically competitive again.

    “Effective skills policies are everybody’s business, and countries need to address the tough question of who should pay for what, when and how, particularly for learning beyond school,” the OECD report reads.

    “Employers can do a lot more to create a climate that supports learning, and invest in learning; some individuals can shoulder more of the financial burden; and governments can do a lot to design more rigorous standards, provide financial incentives, and create a safety net so that all people have access to high-quality education and training. Designing effective skills policies requires more than co-ordinating different sectors of public administration and aligning different levels of government. A broad range of non-governmental actors, including employers, professional and industry associations and chambers of commerce, trade unions, education and training institutions and, of course, individuals must also be involved.”

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