Time for the U.S. to Reskill? What The Survey Of Adult Skills Says

This report takes a look at the United States low-skilled population, identifies policy implications, and offers a set of recommendations.

Viktória Kis
Simon Field
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
Publication Year
Resource Type
Informational Material
Number of Pages

Not only are skills, including basic literacy and numeracy, critical to the prosperity and well-being of individuals, they are also key drivers of economic growth and societal advancement. The OECD’s new international Survey of Adult Skills aims to help countries secure better skills policies by measuring the basic skills of adults in 24 countries and demonstrating how these skills relate to economic and social outcomes.

This report, Time for the U.S. to Reskill? What the Survey of Adult Skills Says which sits alongside the main international report on the Survey, explores the main results from the United States in greater depth. It underlines how the U.S. compares with other countries and what this means for policy-making.

By international standards, despite a relatively high level of educational qualifications, the basic skills of adults in the United States are relatively weak. Unlike many other countries, there has been little sign of improvement in recent decades. The skills of young people are little different from those of their parents. 36 million adult Americans are living with the consequences of low literacy skills. In addition, the results at the top end of the ability range are not more impressive than those of other countries.

The good news is that there are very few countries in the world that are able to make better use of their citizens’ skills than the United States. Skills contribute effectively to the strength of the economy. However, in the context of global upskilling and increasing competition for skills in global markets, it is important that the United States takes action. This should include strengthening initial schooling, supporting adult learning, and developing a set of coherent policies to address the needs of those with the weakest skills.

The report puts forward a set of seven key recommendations designed to that end.

Benefits and Uses

The report found that while other countries have been showing improvements in equipping its adult populations with the skills needed to be productive in their society, the United States has remained relatively unchanged in the decade since the last report, thus falling further behind their international counterparts. The findings, in particular, shine a spotlight on a part of our population that has historically been overlooked and underserved: the large number of adults with low basic skills. U.S. data also indicate that our education system is not doing enough to help adults compete in the global market place. Adults who have trouble reading, doing math, solving problems, and using technology will find the doors of the 21st century workforce closed to them. As a nation, we need to be more strategic and systematic in our effort to reach these adults.

On November 20, 2013 the U.S. Department of Education Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) launched a national engagement effort to explore ways to increase our capacity to improve the foundation skills of adults in the United States. The purpose of this consultation document is to provide background on the issue and seek input from a diverse group of stakeholders who have an interest and a significant role to play in addressing the skill levels of adults. The perspectives, commitment, and collective effort of stakeholders are necessary to transform our country’s infrastructure for adult learning and expand its reach and impact so we can improve the foundation skills of adults.

The consultation paper and more information can be found here: http://www.timetoreskill.org/materials.cfm

More information on OECD's Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC)  http://www.oecd.org/site/piaac/

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