News and Tribune

October 13, 2013

Hayden: Has the U.S. lost its edge?

Study paints bleak future

By MAUREEN HAYDEN
CNHI Statehouse Bureau

INDIANAPOLIS — As Congress was descending further into dysfunction last week, this discouraging piece of news emerged: Despite how we Americans insist that we’re the best and brightest people on the globe, the fact is that we’re not.

At least not according to an exhaustive new study that found the skill level of the American labor force, and the generation soon to join it, has fallen dangerously behind its peers around the world.

The study, conducted by the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, found what many already know: That the low-skilled are more likely than others to be unemployed, have bad health and earn much less money; and also that countries with greater inequality in skills proficiency also have higher income inequality.

Low-skilled? That’s not how we Americans see ourselves. But what the study found is that compared to other advanced nations, too many of our citizens lack the math, literacy and problem-solving skills to better their employment prospects — which has a profound impact on a person’s quality of life and a nation’s economic growth.

The report is based on assessment tests given to 160,000 people, ages 16 to 65, in 23 advanced nations. Five thousand Americans were assessed.

The results: Americans rank 16 out of 23 industrialized countries in literacy and 21 out of 23 in math. In an assessment test of “problem solving in technology rich environments,” the U.S. — a land flooded with iPods, iPads, and iPhones — ranked 17 out of 19.

Here’s a grimmer piece of news: When you take a deeper dive into the report, you see that older workers in the U.S., those between 55 and 64, held their own when compared to skills of workers in other industrialized nations. But younger workers in the U.S., and those soon to graduate from high school and college, are being quickly outpaced by their peers around the world.

Joseph Fuller, a researcher at Harvard Business School, told the Wall Street Journal that the OECD report shows the U.S. has lost the edge it held over the rest of the industrial world over the course of Baby Boomers’ work lives. “We had a lead and we blew it,” he said.

Regaining the lead won’t be easy: While the U.S. is chock full of globally ranked universities - places where people from around the world are clamoring to come - Americans with college and graduate degrees tested behind the global average of their counterparts when it came to math and solving problems using a computer.

Meanwhile, the report found that some countries have made impressive progress equipping their young citizens with better skills: Young Koreans, for example, are outperformed only by their Japanese peers, while Korea’s 55 to 64-year-olds are among the three lowest-performing groups in their age group. And while Baby Boomers in Finland perform around the average, young Finns are among the top performers.

Contrast that to what’s happening in the U.S.: Young Americans, between 16 to 25, rank the lowest among their peers in the 23 countries surveyed.

Turns out that only Americans with the most “cerebral jobs — the ones that demand high levels of literacy, math and problem-solving skills — fared the best against the rest of the world.

So our brightest might be the best, but where does that leave the rest of us? On a downward trajectory if it’s true, as the report suggests, that we’re witnessing a massive deterioration in the competitiveness of the generations following the Baby Boomers.

The U.S. Department of Education, knowing the OECD findings were coming, produced its own report with policy recommendations for how to reverse that trajectory. But it hasn’t been released due to the government shutdown.

— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com