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The Adult Skills Survey: A Second Look at the US Results

This week the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a follow-up report to its international survey of the reading, math, and technology skills of 157,000 adults in 24 countries. The new report focuses specifically on the implications of the findings for the United States. Time for the U.S. to Reskill? What the Survey of Adult Skills Says”, answers its own question with a resounding yes – the US is falling dangerously behind in the global skills race and needs to address weaknesses across its education system, from pre-K through college and into the workplace. While the report does not include any new data, it dives deeper into the US results and includes a set of recommendations for policymakers grappling with how to address the reality that 36 million Americans – one in six – lack basic skills. Through a more nuanced look at the data, the authors identify a number of unique features of the US context that may provide avenues for improving our scores over the near and long term.

One encouraging finding in an otherwise very discouraging report is that skills are better rewarded in the US than in many comparison countries, where labor market rigidities and barriers to entry for women and minorities result in large pools of over-skilled and underemployed adults. In the US the relationship between skills and earnings is even stronger than the relationship between educational attainment and earnings, meaning that American employers are willing to reward specific skills with higher wages, regardless of where those skills are attained.

While the strong link between skills and earnings is yet another data point for those arguing that “college pays”, it also points to the value of supporting alternative pathways for building skills, besides formal schooling. If employers don’t care where the skills come from and are increasingly skeptical that institutions of higher education are providing them (as a host of recent surveys have shown),  then we need to get even better at providing youth and adults an opportunity to earn competency-based credentials that are based on proficiency, not seat time. Innovations in the area of competency-based education, apprenticeships, prior-learning assessments, work-based learning models, and digital badges are moving us in that direction and expanding opportunities to build and demonstrate skills.

A second, less encouraging finding is that compared to other OECD countries, the United States does a rotten job building the skills of immigrants. This may come as a surprise to most Americans given our history as a nation built by immigrants. Yet, according to the international survey the United States is one of only two countries in the OECD where immigrants actually lose literacy skills after having been in the country for more than five years. Meanwhile, immigrants arrive in Finland with literacy skills that are, on average, 30% lower than those of US immigrants but after five years are nearly as high as native-born young adults in the US.

A second, less encouraging finding is that compared to other OECD countries, the United States does a rotten job building the skills of immigrants.

The finding points to the urgent need for a concerted effort to integrate the millions of working and school age immigrants into our systems for education and training. Of the 11 million undocumented persons in the US, the 1.7 million “dreamers” are the lowest hanging fruit in this group – young adults who were brought to the US as children and are now college-age. Given what we know about the economic and social returns to postsecondary education, we all win if these students complete college. Allowing them access to the same student financial aid as their native-born peers is a smart use of public funds that will yield significant returns.

But what about the millions of immigrants who haven’t gone to school in the United States?  While some might argue that it is impossible to build the skills of poor, low-skilled immigrants with little formal schooling, the success of countries like Finland, Norway, and Sweden in significantly raising the skills of extremely low-skilled non-native populations demonstrates that it can be done. Integrated educational programs that embed English language acquisition in occupational skills training have already demonstrated significant success in building the literacy skills of immigrants in the United States. But these kinds of interventions need a policy infrastructure and resources to support them, which are not possible without comprehensive immigration reform and increased investments in adult basic education.

The current Senate immigration reform bill, while far from perfect, does offer some of that policy infrastructure. The bill calls for better coordination of our public and private systems for delivering adult education and ESL programs, workforce development services, and health and human services so that immigrants can be successfully integrated into their local communities and contribute to their local economies. The bill also calls for smarter and more targeted immigration policies that link the granting of visas to our skill and workforce development needs. Through these kinds of policies, we can leverage the aspirations of millions of immigrants already in this country for better skills and family-sustaining work and harness the enthusiasm of future immigrants to help fuel our economic growth and prosperity – just like we used to do…"