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

By Betsy Prueter

According to a recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), it is more common to find adults with low levels of basic literacy and numeracy skills in the United States than in other nations. One in six adults have low literacy skills and one in three have low numeracy skills, despite the fact that the U.S. has one of the largest proportions of adults with more than a high school education and one of the smallest proportions of adults with less than a high school education.

Among the report’s other findings:

  • 12% of U.S. adults scored at the highest level of literacy.
    • This is far below the average of Japan (the top performer), where 22% of adults scored at the highest level, but just under the cross country average.
  • 8% of U.S. adults scored at the highest level of numeracy.
    • This is below the average of Japan and Finland (the top performers), where 19% of adults scored at the highest level, and below the cross-country average of 13%.
  • Survey respondents who reported “fair” or “poor” health were four times as likely to have “low” literacy skills.
  • U.S. adults have similar or weaker literacy skills than did their counterparts who were surveyed in the mid-1990s.
  • Socio-economic background, ethnicity, and migration status have a stronger influence on one’s skill level in the U.S. than they do in other comparison countries.
    • One third of the low-skilled in the U.S. are immigrants.
    • 35% of black and 43% of Hispanic adults have low skills, compared to 10% of whites.
  • While the U.S. faces considerable challenges in the number of U.S. adults with low skills:
    • Low-skilled adults are employed at higher rates than in other comparison countries;
    • Wages are higher for low-skilled adults in the U.S. than in other comparison countries; and
    • More low-skilled adults participate in adult education and training in the U.S. than in other comparison countries.