09 Oct 2013   |   News

First international skills survey reveals huge disparity across Europe

One in five adults in Europe has low literacy and numeracy skills, and even a university degree does not guarantee a high level of essential skills. Immediate action is required to bring our skills-set up to scratch, says the Commission

A shocking 20 per cent of the EU working age population have low literacy and numeracy skills, while 25 per cent lack the digital skills needed to effectively use information and communication technologies (ICT), according to the first comprehensive international survey of adult skills, published by the European Commission and the economic think-tank, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). 

While the survey brings good news for Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands, it serves as a wake-up call for many European countries, showing for example, that almost 30 per cent of the working age population in Spain and Italy having low numeracy skills. 

“The survey could not be more timely,” said Androulla Vassiliou, EU Commissioner for Education, Culture and Multilingualism, speaking at the launch in Brussels yesterday (8 October). “We face a dramatic situation: a shrinking workforce due to demographic changes and a shortage of skilled labour in crucial sectors like IT and healthcare.”

It is hoped the results will lead to more informed policy-making in education, with Ángel Gurría, Secretary General of the OECD, saying the data is a, “Gold mine of knowledge”.  While some of the results are to be expected, for example that the low-skilled earn less, Gurría said it is essential to have the hard numbers, “If you cannot measure something, you cannot manage it.”

Major findings from the survey 

The world-first international study, the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), measured the literacy, numeracy and new technology skills of 16 to 65-year olds across 24 countries. 

Among the most striking statistics is the finding that 20 per cent of the EU working age population have low literacy and numeracy skills, while 25 per cent lack the digital skills needed to effectively use information and communication technologies (ICT). 

Social background has a strong impact on skills – with the children of parents with low standards of education in England, Germany, Italy, Poland and the US, displaying much weaker reading skills than their peers. 

Failing to equip people with appropriate skills has serious repercussions, said Gurría, “What people know has a huge impact on their life opportunities.” The report found that the median hourly wage of workers who scored high in the literacy test – those who can make complex inferences and evaluate subtle arguments in written texts - is more than 60 per cent higher than the wages of workers who performed poorly and who are also more than twice as likely to be unemployed. Adults with low literacy skills tend to have poorer health, and are less engaged with society, said the report. 

Disparity in skills levels

Perhaps the most compelling result of the survey is the disparity in skill levels across the 24 countries surveyed. In reading, for example, over one in five adults in Italy, Spain and France perform at or below the most basic level, compared with one in twenty Japanese adults and one in ten Finns.

And this is true across the skills, with almost one in three adults in Italy, Spain and the US performing at or below the most basic level of numeracy, and almost one in five adults having no computer experience in Spain, Italy, Cyprus, Poland and Slovakia.  

The results also show striking differences in the skills acquired through formal education. Secondary school leavers in Finland and the Netherlands have, in general, higher skills than those with a higher education degree in England, Spain, Italy, Ireland and Cyprus.

The skills deficit poses an important obstacle to reducing youth unemployment, which has reached record levels in many regions of Europe despite certain sectors reporting a lack of suitably-trained recruits. EU science ministers meeting in Vilnius in July noted there are around 700,000 unfilled ICT jobs, and two million vacancies overall in Europe, pointing to the need for action to endow the next generation with skills relevant to the job market. “What is the point of going to school and then perhaps on to university, a Master’s degree and even PhD, if after that long and thorny road there is a cliff called unemployment?” asked Gurría.

Some countries have made more progress in equipping the next generation with better, more appropriate skills. “While older Koreans are among the three lowest-performing groups, young Koreans are amongst the best – second only to the Japanese,” said Gurría. The same improvement across generations can be seen in Finland, Japan, South Korea and the Netherlands.

But this does not apply across the board. England ranks among the top three countries surveyed for literacy skills among 55-65 year-olds but is in the bottom three when it comes to such skills among 16-25 year-olds. “The young Brits and Americans are entering a much more competitive job market with pretty much the same skills as those leaving the market,” said Gurría. “The skill levels haven’t moved an inch in forty years. It’s scary quite frankly; the talent pool in these countries will shrink if urgent action isn’t taken.”

A better blend of skills

“The survey underlines the need for immediate action at national and EU level to bring our skills-set up to scratch,” said Vassiliou. “There are no short-cuts. We have to invest more efficiently in better education and better training to deliver a better blend of skills. We also need to cooperate better, at EU, national and regional level, between public and private sectors, with business, academia, NGOs.”

The Commission plans to discuss the survey findings with national governments, in order to better understand the variations in skills proficiency, and to identify points for action. 

Later this autumn, the Commission and the OECD will launch an Education and Skills Online Assessment tool, allowing people to test their skills and benchmark their ability on an international level.

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