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Reading the temperature on a mercury thermometer. Understanding product reviews. Navigating online job search sites. These all seem simple enough, but many U.S. adults struggle to complete daily tasks such as these. Results from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), a multi-country survey of adults conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), showed that large shares of the U.S. population lacked proficiency in a range of core competencies including literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving.
Survey results revealed that nearly half (46%) of U.S. young adults (ages 16 to 34) were unable to successfully complete moderately complex literacy tasks, as indicated by scoring below Level 3 proficiency on the PIAAC literacy sub test. Level 3 tasks require those surveyed to “identify, interpret, or evaluate one or more pieces of information, and often require varying levels of inference.” Among those with college credentials, approximately one out of three associate’s degree holders and one out of five bachelor’s degree holders failed to meet this threshold of moderate proficiency.

Even more college graduates fell below Level 3 proficiency on the PIAAC numeracy sub test: nearly half (48%) of associate’s degree holders and one-third (30%) of bachelor’s degree holders. Numeracy is defined 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.” Similar shares of U.S. young adults under performed on problem-solving tasks administered via computer. Even college-educated adults found it difficult to use digital technologies to evaluate information, effectively communicate with others, and perform routine tasks. More than half (52%) of associate’s degree holders and one-third (34%) of bachelor’s degree holders failed to meet Level 2 proficiency on digital problem-solving tasks of moderate difficulty (e.g., downloading music files on a portable music player).

In general, when compared internationally, the skills of U.S. adults were in the middle of the pack. Among the 22 OECD countries that participated in the first wave of the PIAAC survey, U.S. college-educated adults in their 20s scored about average in literacy, but below average in numeracy. For example, among adults in their 20s with at least an associate’s degree, the U.S. outperformed only one country (Slovakia) in numeracy scores and trailed leading countries such as Austria, Finland, and Sweden.

The low literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills of the youngest U.S. adult cohort present a challenge to America’s social and economic outlook. Compared to highly skilled adults, those with low skills are more likely to be unemployed or working in low-skill occupations that garner low wages, and these challenges ultimately limit the prospects for economic self-sufficiency and upward mobility. Low-skilled adults also report poorer physical and mental health and lower civic engagement, which directly affect a nation’s publicly funded health care programs and democratic processes.

The PIAAC assessment results are a sobering reminder that millions of U.S. adults—even those with college degrees—are ill-equipped to fully benefit from or participate in U.S. social and economic life. For example, technological advancements and global trade have transformed the U.S. economy and placed greater demands for new skills and competencies required for employment. Results from the 2018 Job Outlook survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers show that organizations are seeking job candidates with problem-solving skills, the most desired attribute recorded (83%). Other desirable qualities employers seek include written communication skills (80%), analytical/quantitative skills (68%), and verbal communication skills (68%).

So what does this mean for U.S. policy and educational practice? First, policymakers need to recognize that large segments of the young adult U.S. population are not proficient in key competencies that are necessary to successfully navigate work and life. Then, the country must make greater investments in developing the human capital of its residents through education and training. To combat low skill proficiency, OECD offers broad policy recommendations that include providing high-quality early childhood education and opportunities for lifelong learning so that low-skilled individuals may continue to develop proficiency in key competencies throughout their life.

While there is a positive association between level of education and skill proficiency, it is disconcerting that sizeable shares of college-educated young adults were found to be unable to carry out moderately difficult literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving tasks.[13] These skill deficiencies raise questions about the validity of the college credential. Relying on measures of students’ demonstrated competencies rather than credit hours accrued might better define when students should receive a postsecondary credential and be ready to enter the workforce.[14]

Ensuring that college credentials represent meaningful skill proficiency is important, but efforts to ensure skill development of individuals outside the formal U.S. higher education system are also important. Stakeholders from government and industry should invest in adult education programs that help low-skilled individuals become trained for success in the workplace and college. Walmart is a notable recent example of employer-assisted training; the company subsidized employees’ pursuit of online associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in business and supply chain management.

Too many U.S. young adults are ill-prepared for the demands of the globally competitive economy by lacking proficiency in required key competencies. The U.S. must do more to ensure all Americans benefit from high-quality educational experiences from early childhood though college and later adulthood.