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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.

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.

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(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.

Do You Know What You're Worth?

“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.

Tell Us What You Think

How can we help workers close the skills gap? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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13 Comments on "When It Comes to Job Skills, American Millennials Are in a Race to the Bottom"

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Testing
Guest

Yep, and we all know standardized testing is…

Oh wait: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6lyURyVz7k

Testing
Guest

Yep, and we all know standardized testing is…

Oh wait: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6lyURyVz7k

Tori
Guest

This is what happens when “nobody is left behind”. Speaking as a millennial and MENSA member I found it exceedingly difficult to advance when I was ready to do so because of this structure that my age group should determine my educational access. By the time I was “old enough” to handle social interactions with my intellectual peers I had grown to be so cynical toward the prospect of advancing that it no longer seemed worth it to try. School is strictly test preparation and conformity.

RJ
Guest
It also seems to be a “need” to be constantly on their phone texting, Facebook, surfing the web, etc when they should be doing their job or watching where they are driving. Much of their internal philosophy is based on the memorize / regurgitate that many schools do. Rather than learn the concept and apply it to a problem. If they have never encountered the problem before the unwillingness to investigate to find the answer or claim that “it’s not fair” is staggering. Yes Josh is right in the sense that we don’t teach kids in the tougher way earlier.… Read more »
Gwen
Guest

ETS is pretty much Satan, so I put no stock in what they say. Their only motivation is to maximize profits regardless of the cost their practices exact on human beings.

Nancy
Guest

Equality has never existed and never will that’s unrealistic and as Kevin states Marxism. We have examples of failed countries using this system. History has lessons to teach us and repeats if we aren’t careful. I agree with josh, Jeff, Kevin and Jackie. Too many people crying equity equity equity which translates to coddle coddle coddle excuse excuse excuse. “Politically correct” has and is hurting our country.

Priscilla
Guest

Have some compassion for these millennials. They spent far more on education than boomers, and got less in return. Their success or failure is our tomorrow. These young ones will be supporting many of us when we retire. It is in our interest to help them out in the workplace, come alongside and mentor them.

Jackie
Guest

Best I could tell, there is no lack of competition in sports skills? Young students are not ALLOWED to compete any longer. There are school systems who won’t allow a valedictorian…. REALLY? I agree with Josh. Stop with the “Oh everyone is a winner” garbage, and let them compete!! Expect that they do the work, or they fail. That is the only way some people learn, is by having to be accountable, and by having consequences if they don’t do what they are supposed to do.

Peter
Guest

ha- HA
Take THAT Spain!

USA! USA! USA!

Francine
Guest
After a quick read of the PIAAC report, it’s clear that there’s a very strong correlation between social and economic well-being and greater proficiency in the technologically rich workplace. The highest scoring countries are in Scandinavia and Northern Europe. All these countries have strong social and economic support policies which increase the opportunities for all their citizens to access education from very early on in life (another factor shown in the report to give huge advantages in adult literacy rates). The report also shows huge advantages for adults who have access to continued education as they need to up skill… Read more »
Kevin
Guest

The answer to the question was right in the quoted comment: “..we need to better appreciate the ways in which education can perpetuate inequalities of opportunity..”

This is Marxism. They are more focused on equality than they are on education. It’s not possible to fix the root education problems with critical thinking and the 3 Rs when schools have turned into social justice indoctrination centers and experimental labs. Add in what Josh said about the behavior of the youth and you’ve got a recipe for manufacturing cohorts of arrogant Leftist narcissists.

Good job, NEA and friends.

Jeff
Guest

I’m with Josh. Well put.

Josh
Guest
I’m betting the real reason behind this IS the social facets of today youth. I largely blame the out of control PC police who essentially dictate that everyone is a winner and nobody is accountable for anything (unless you say something anywhere near a racial or emotionally compromising comment.) People need to grow backbones again and stop being a society of Care Bears. George Carlin said it best, “It’s the pussification of America.” It’s like the hippy era all over again only now people HAVE to care about an coddle them for some reason thereby validating the behavior and encouraging… Read more »
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