America’s millennials are the most educated in the country’s history. They’re also known to be tech savvy and worldly, but new data from Princeton-based Educational Testing Service says they’re among the world’s least-skilled workers. Even worse, not only do Gen Y Americans lag far behind their overseas peers by every measure, they also score lower than other age groups of Americans. Canwe thrive as a nation when a large segment of our society lacks the skills required for higher-level employment and meaningful engagement in our democracy?
I interviewed Madeline Goodman and Anita Sands, researchers at ETS, to discuss their findings and what corporate learning teams can do to help. Below are edited excerpts from our interview.
Your study found that America’s millennials, on average, demonstrate weak skills in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments compared with their international peers. Let’s dig into this a bit. Why do you think that is? How does the U.S. compare to other countries?
Goodman: We would like to begin with the second part of your question on how the U.S. compares to other countries. For our research, we examined the skills distribution of U.S. millennials compared to their counterparts in 21 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. We used the 2012 Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies data on core information processing skills in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environment for this comparison. Across all three scales, millennials scored well below the OECD average. On two of the three scales, they ranked last — on numeracy (along with Italy and Spain) and problem solving in technology-rich environments (along with the Slovak Republic, Ireland and Poland).
In addition to overall performance, we looked at the performance of U.S. millennials in numeracy even more closely. Among our highest (90th percentile) and lowest (10th percentile) performers by educational attainment, nativity and socioeconomic status (as measured by “parental education”), what we found mirrors the overall findings in numeracy: U.S. millennials scored at or very near the bottom compared to their international counterparts. What’s more, we found that though millennials are attaining higher levels of education, their scores actually declined from 2003 to 2012.
There was one metric, however, where U.S. millennials outperformed all others. That was in the gap in scores in numeracy between our high (90th percentile) and low (10th percentile) performers. This gap puts the U.S. at the top of the list when compared to the other OECD countries — along with England/Northern Ireland. The implications of this are important when considered in the context of social and economic outcomes.
While people often want to point to a single reason for a problem, we would strongly caution against that. Some are quick to blame schools or millennials themselves, but we contend that the causes of this challenge are complex and multifaceted and, in fact, represent a culmination of many factors working together: macro and micro, historical and contemporary, political and personal. We argue that it is necessary to look at the significant forces at play in our society, from the impact of globalization on U.S. labor and consumer markets to technological changes that have reshaped the economy in profound ways, to the host of policy choices made over the past 40 years in response to these forces and the subsequent increase in inequality of opportunity.
Do you know if there’s a difference between those who have gone to school in the U.S. vs. those who perhaps started their education in other countries?
Sands: The PIAAC data does contain some information on this, but the sample size for respondents is too small for us to make a reliable comparison between millennials who were educated in the U.S. and those who had education in other countries.
However, we did look closely at two aspects of this issue that are somewhat relevant to your question. First, we looked at the relationship in scores between foreign and native-born millennials. In all 22 countries that we looked at, native-born scored higher than their foreign-born counterparts — so it’s no surprise that they do so in the U.S. The more surprising finding is that the performance of native-born U.S. millennials, when compared to the performance of native-born millennials from other OECD countries, parallels the relatively poor performance of all U.S. millennials. Native-born U.S. millennials did not perform higher in numeracy than their peers in any other country.
Secondly, in terms of attainment (highest degree earned) of formal education beyond high school, our study showed that compared to their peers internationally, millennials in the U.S. scored lower than many of their counterparts with similar levels of education. They performed below the OECD average in numeracy for the post-secondary non-baccalaureate degree and four-year baccalaureate degree levels. At the level of educational attainment defined as “above a four-year baccalaureate degree,” the score for U.S. millennials is (statistically) the same as the OECD average, but not at the top of the distribution.
When does the problem occur? High school? Before that?
Goodman:Part of what we communicated in our report is that this is a problem with deep roots, best understood within the context of the larger economic and social forces reshaping our economy and society over the past 40 years. In our current “knowledge economy,” as it has been called, one’s life outcomes are ever more closely tied to one’s skills because they are so strongly linked to job prospects and economic prosperity. If those at the bottom of the skill range have fewer and fewer opportunities — from the moment of birth until the moment they leave formal education and/or enter the job market — this will have a reinforcing effect across their lives and those of their children.
What can we do to fix it?
Sands: First, we want to put forth the message that skills are not an abstract concept; they are a critical part of a complex set of challenges we are facing as a nation. Second, we believe the key to understanding this problem lies in recognizing it as part of a broader issue of inequality of opportunity in our society. Inequality — of wealth, income and opportunity — is clearly a very complex issue, and we are not suggesting that it be reduced to a single metric.
However, the skills of our young adult population, we think, do play a critical role in helping us understand this complex problem. We believe that without improving the skill level of those at all points in the distribution, there is little chance of meaningfully altering the economic outlook for many of our citizens. Our contribution with this paper is to set this broader context for understanding what we call “America’s Skills Challenge.” Others studies make more specific policy recommendations, including the U.S. Department of Education’s: Time for the U.S. to Reskill: Developing a National Action Plan to Improve the Foundation Skills of U.S. Adults and Making Skills Everyone’s Business, as well as a report from the American Council on Education’s Center for Policy Research and Strategy titledReadiness for the Learning Economy: Insights from OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills on Workforce Readiness and Preparation.
How can corporate learning and development help?
Goodman: Studies show the following paradox about skills and training: Those with higher skills tend to be in the position to augment their skills with training and development programs. On average, an adult with Level 4/5 (the highest level) of literacy proficiency is around three times more likely to participate in adult education than someone who is at or below Level 1. Nonetheless, the PIAAC data clearly demonstrate that literacy skills can be gained — and should be gained — throughout one’s adult life, not only through formal educational opportunities but also through informal ones as well. In fact, countries that have higher levels of participation in organized adult learning activities also demonstrate higher literacy and numeracy skills in their adult population (age 16-65).
To us, these data are important: Making learning opportunities for adults available across skills levels within informal settings (either in or out of work) is critical. There is increasing recognition that employers must play a more meaningful role in providing training and professional development to their adult employees, especially their young adults. This is an important piece of solving the complex problem we outlined in the report.