When It Comes to Job Skills, American Millennials Are in a Race to the Bottom

The youngest workers, the ones who grew up alongside the latest and greatest technologies, have always been assumed to be more skilled in their use. It’s probably been like this since the invention of the typewriter, but it’s increasingly true now, in an era when most office jobs rely on digital technologies that adapt seemingly by the minute. In addition, today’s young workers are more educated than ever before, boasting more years of education than any previous generation. There’s just one problem: recent research shows that Gen Y workers in the U.S. are anything but highly skilled.


(Photo Credit: John Althouse Cohen/Flickr)

Researchers at the Educational Testing Service, which is based at Princeton, recently set out to measure the literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments skills of workers aged 16 to 34 in 23 countries with a test called the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). Their findings showed that American students were poorly equipped for the modern-day workforce, lacking in every category of skills development required for success.

“One central message that emerges from this report is that, despite having the highest levels of educational attainment of any previous American generation, these young adults on average demonstrate relatively weak skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments compared to their international peers,” writes Irwin S. Kirsch, Ralph Tyler Chair in Large-Scale Assessment and Director of the Center for Global Assessment at the Educational Testing Service. “These findings hold true when looking at millennials overall, our best performing and most educated, those who are native born, and those from the highest socioeconomic background. Equally troubling is that these findings represent a decrease in literacy and numeracy skills for U.S. adults when compared with results from previous adult surveys.”

Falling Behind

Specifically, American millennials ranked 15 out of 22 participating countries in literacy, behind every country but Italy and Spain; last in numeracy, tied with Italy and Spain; and last in problem solving in technology-rich environments, alongside the Slovak Republic, Ireland, and Poland.

Furthermore, even among the top-scoring millennials, Americans tested lower than citizens of other countries; our 90th percentile scorers got lower marks than those in every other country except Spain. The gap in scores between the 90th and 10th percentiles was larger in the U.S. than in 14 other participating countries, “and was not significantly different than the gap in the remaining countries, signaling a high degree of inequality in the distribution of scores,” according to researchers.

What does all this mean? In the simplest terms, although the youngest generation of American workers is attaining higher levels of education on paper, its actual skills are not increasing to match.

Even the Researchers Were Surprised by the Results

“We really thought [U.S.] Millennials would do better than the general adult population, either compared to older coworkers in the U.S. or to the same age group in other countries,” says Madeline Goodman, an ETS researcher, in an interview with Fortune. “But they didn’t. In fact, their scores were abysmal.”

It’s important to note that nothing in the report’s findings indicated that students themselves are to blame for the decline in their skills. In fact, in the executive summary the researchers suggest that the “results should be considered against a backdrop of larger social, economic, technological, and political forces that are shaping our society … If, despite investments and reforms in K-12 education over the past decades, America continues to lose ground in terms of the developed skills of its adult population and workforce, then we need to better appreciate the ways in which education can perpetuate inequalities of opportunity at all educational levels, as well as help redress this problem.”

Bottom line: if we want a workforce that can compete in a global economy, we’re going to need more than just a lot of scrappy students pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. It will take systemic change to give every student a fighting chance at success.

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