Time for the U.S. to Reskill?

What the Survey of Adult Skills Says

image of Time for the U.S. to Reskill?

The ‘basic skills’ of literacy and numeracy are among the most fundamental attributes of human beings and their civilization, lying at the root of our capacity to communicate and live and work together, to develop and share knowledge, science and culture. Their contribution to workforce skills have increasingly been recognized as critical to economic success, while evidence on gaps in adult basic skills and the link with economic and social outcomes has also been growing, both at national and international level (e.g. International Survey of Adult Skills of 1994-98 and Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey of 2003-2007). Most tellingly, there has been a belated realization that despite universal basic education in advanced countries, some adults have slipped through the net, leaving them with very weak literacy and numeracy. All of these factors underline the importance of the OECD’s new international Survey of Adult Skills.

This report on skills in the US draws out the policy implications of the Survey for the US, while also making use of some additional data collected for the Survey on the US alone. The study does not directly evaluate relevant US policies and programs – such as schooling and adult education. Instead it identifies in the results of the Survey some key lessons about the strategic objectives and directions which should form a frame for policy development in the US, including policy on adult learning and schooling.



Summary of findings and policy recommendations

• Low “basic” skills (literacy and numeracy) are more common in the United States than on average across countries. One in six adults have low literacy skills – in Japan the comparable figure is one in 20. Nearly one in three have weak numeracy skills against a cross country average of one in five. Looking at stronger performers, while one in nine US adults score at the highest level in literacy, similar to the cross-country average, only one in twelve score at the highest numeracy level, well below the average. In a new domain designed to assess some skills with modern information and communication technology “problem solving in technology-rich environments” the US results are a little worse than the cross-country average.


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