Readiness for the Learning Economy: Insights from OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills on Workforce Readiness and Preparation

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In today’s global, technology-driven economy, education is critical to national competitiveness and individual opportunity. Literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills are the foundation for how adults engage in the workplace, at home, and in the community. In fact, these skills are now the basis for success in today’s learning economy—a world in which the need to use knowledge undergirds all aspects of daily life. In a learning economy, skill development, measurement, and use determine the well-being of individuals, businesses, and nations alike.

The Survey of Adult Skills, a new data collection effort led by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), provides useful insights for understanding the characteristics of the learning economy and the readiness of adults to prosper within it. OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills enhances understanding of workplace readiness by offering assessments of proficiency (from low to high) on measures of literacy, numeracy, and problem solving with information-technology (IT) tools—critical cognitive and workplace skills—for individuals in 24 participating countries and sub-national regions (OECD 2013a).

The survey reveals that relatively small shares of adults in the United States have strong literacy and numeracy skills, and higher shares of adults in the United States than in many other nations have weak literacy and numeracy skills. On measures of problem solving, the performance of U.S. adults more closely mirrors the average performance of adults in other participating nations. The survey also reveals that, although proficiency levels in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in general rise in accordance with education levels, proficiency levels in literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving with information tools vary within education levels.

In this report, we first discuss the importance of education and skills in the twenty-first century. Then we briefly describe the methodology for the survey and present key findings, focusing on skills of adults in the United States. We conclude by identifying implications of the survey and its findings for policy and practice.

Louis Soares, Laura W. Perna