Investing in skills is key to success for millions

Long before the COVID-19 crisis, it has been clear to many that the nature of work is changing. The prevailing observation has been that the job market increasingly requires workers with “21st-century” skills, including problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration and digital literacy. While it is too soon for the implications of this current crisis to be completely clear, it only serves to highlight the need for workers with the skills to meet rapidly changing work conditions and societal demands.

While many acknowledge that 21st-century skills are increasingly important, what is not fully appreciated is the extent to which these skills rely upon strong foundational literacy and numeracy skills. By foundational skills, we mean the cognitive skills required to understand, use and interpret written and mathematical information. It is difficult — if not impossible — to critically evaluate, problem-solve or analyze data without such skills. Foundational skills are also key in order for workers to benefit from job-specific training and, longer term, be better equipped to learn on their own in a time of evolving technologies and workplace demands.

Because our young adults are now graduating from high school and college at higher rates than any cohort before them, it is typically assumed that they have acquired these foundational skills. However, results from large-scale international surveys such as the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies tell a different story. PIAAC is an ongoing survey conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that assesses the skills of adults ages 16-65.

In its first cycle, conducted in three rounds from 2011–2017, the PIAAC survey measured literacy and numeracy skills and assessed problem-solving skills in technology rich environments, or PSTRE. The computer-based simulation tasks in the PSTRE domain required the application of some key 21st-century skills. For example, respondents were asked to navigate through web environments to locate and compare information, evaluate search results, use software tools to organize information, and overcome impasses in the process of solving a problem. The focus was not on computer skills per se, but rather on the cognitive skills required to access and make use of computer-based information to solve problems.

What PIAAC analyses revealed is that, in order to perform well on the PSTRE tasks, respondents needed to demonstrate strong foundational skills. Yet, 68% of young adults in the United States, or slightly over two-thirds of individuals ages 16-34, performed below the level of literacy needed to correctly complete just half of the PSTRE tasks. Results were worse when looking at the relationship between numeracy skills and PSTRE. These findings expose a concerning paradox: While more young adults than ever before are graduating high school or earning certificates and completing some form of postsecondary education, far too many were unable to demonstrate the foundational skills required to perform the kinds of tasks deemed essential in the 21st century.

Addressing this problem requires public policy efforts that must include targeted interventions focused on improving foundational literacy and numeracy skills for those adults who lack them. These interventions should include three integrated components: instructional programs, teacher training and assessments. The design of instructional programs should be guided by research showing that foundational literacy and numeracy skills can be improved by teaching underlying cognitive strategies.  The teacher training component would help improve instruction and guide teachers so they could adapt instruction to a particular occupational sector or employment context. And, finally, targeted assessments would aim to help identify individuals who can benefit most from these interventions, monitor their growth, as well as evaluate the outcomes of job training and career development programs. Today’s current economic and workforce upheavals only serve to highlight the fact that there has never been a more critical time to put our efforts into developing and implementing such interventions.

Data from assessments like PIAAC present us with an uncomfortable reality: Far too few of America’s young adults are well positioned for success in our 21st-century economy. The challenge is to pave the way, through direct interventions, for them to develop the skills they need today and will need well into the future — a future in which individuals must be able to benefit from ongoing training programs in rapidly changing work environments or be able to continuously acquire new skills on their own. In order to meet this challenge, intervention efforts must focus on ensuring that our young people are leaving educational and training programs with the critical skills they need to find new paths that will lead to economic opportunity and security, even — or especially — in today’s uncertain times.

Irwin Kirsch is the Ralph W. Tyler Chair in Large-Scale Assessment and cirector of the Center for Research on Human Capital and Education at ETS.