Blog: The Educated Reporter

Study: U.S. Workers Behind in Skills, Smarts

The U.S. labor force lags behind other rich countries in smarts and work skills, according to a study that measured the cognitive and verbal abilities of adults in 23 nations.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the same organization behind an assessment known as PISA that measured the science, math and verbal skills of 15-year-olds, published the study with cooperation from the U.S. Department of Education. The full title of the report is “Literacy, Numeracy, and Problem Solving in Technology- Rich Environments Among U.S. Adults: Results from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies 2012.”

On literacy, U.S. adults posted an average score of 270, which was below the average among participating countries. Japan, found to have the highest literacy score of 296, was one of 11 countries that bested the United States. Five others scored worse than the United States, including the laggard of the group, Italy, which had a score of 250. England, Denmark and Germany had scores that were statistically similar to the U.S. average.

About one in eight U.S. adults, which the OECD defines as those between ages 16 and 65, scored at the highest level of proficiency on the literacy scale, a share of the population that’s smaller than those of seven countries. This means that a smaller portion of Americans are performing at the top level compared to those seven countries, which include Japan, Finland and Canada.

However, within the 55 to 65 age group, the U.S. was above average on literacy.

The OECD defines literacy as “understanding, evaluating, using and engaging with written text to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.”

On all measurements, the U.S. demonstrated a wider-than-average skills and cognition gap between workers with at least a bachelor’s degree and those who completed high school.

Roughly 5,600 U.S. workers were measured for this study.

The report also measured skill levels of U.S. workers by self-reported health, education, income, racial background, age group, employment status, gender and whether they were foreign-born.

Comparative results on other subjects and select U.S.-specific findings are posted below. All images originate from the report.

The report defines numeracy as “the ability to access, use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas, to engage in and manage mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life.”

The third measurement–problem solving in technology-rich environments–is defined as “using digital technology, communication tools, and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others, and perform practical tasks.”