Millennial tech workers are entering the U.S. workforce at a comparable disadvantage to other tech workers throughout the industrialized world, according to study from Educational Testing Services (ETS), a nonprofit skills assessment service.
Despite higher spending than any other developed nation on education and a world-class collegiate system, America’s young workers are reportedly lagging further and further behind in core skills. “A relatively large percentage of our young adults cannot perform literacy tasks that ask them to ‘identify, interpret, or evaluate one or more pieces of information and often require varying levels of inferencing,’” ETS found (PDF), “or numeracy tasks that ‘require several steps and may involve the choice of problem solving strategies or relevant information.’” For example, of adults ages 16-34, some 56 percent perform below the minimum standard of proficiency level for problem-solving in technology-rich environments.
How do U.S. millennials compare to their international peers? Those in the 90th percentile (i.e., the top-scoring) actually scored lower than top-scoring millennials in 15 of the 22 studied countries; low-scoring U.S. millennials ranked last (along with Italy and England/Northern Ireland). The gap in scores between highest- and lowest-scoring U.S. millennials was wider than the gap of 14 other countries, “signaling a high degree of inequality in the distribution of scores,” according to ETS.
“A decade ago, the skill level of American adults was judged ‘mediocre,’” the authors of the report wrote. “Now it is below even that. Millennials, who will form the backbone of this nation’s future, are not poised to lift us out of this predicament; in fact, the lack of adequate skills in this population has become a challenge for us to confront.”
This data comes despite a nationwide push to implement an educational Common Core, which focuses on concepts, skills and problem-solving. One of Common Core’s stated goals is to measure itself against “other top performing countries in order to prepare all students for success in our global economy and society.”
But is it working? Daniel Zweier, a graduate of UC Santa Cruz who fits the Millennial demographic, suggested that, although schools are attempting to improve cognitive skills, they’re missing the mark: “There are a number of reasons [for the decline], but I think the primary one is education. High-school education in the U.S. has issues in testing and teaching true comprehension and the ability to extrapolate an idea to create or find the correct answer.”
Whether Common Core is too new to measure its efficacy—it launched in 2009—or it’s the next wrong step undertaken by a declining U.S. educational system, ETS data clearly suggests that young adults in the U.S. are ill prepared to take on a competitive world. And while it’s never good to have a workforce with declining skills, it’s particularly alarming given that the technical needs of many professions have grown more complex over the past decade.
“In recent years, advances in information technology and communications methods have significantly increased the demand for the cognitive, decision-making, and interpersonal skills of managers and professionals who are adept at performing abstract, non-routine tasks,” wrote Gary Burtless and Adam Looney of the Brookings Institute.
The result is an upward pressure on wages for those with high-tech skills, and employers are already complaining that they can’t find enough skilled workers to fill open positions. According to CompTIA, 57 percent of IT firms indicate it is challenging or very challenging to hire skilled IT workers, even as 44 percent of businesses actively seek to fill IT positions. (On the other end of the spectrum is the downward pressure on wages for jobs that don’t require advanced skills; this polarization potentially leaves little room for those in the middle.)
Zweier thinks high school is too late to teach the fundamentals of advanced skills: “I don’t believe we have the same foundation in these early years as other nations do, with language proficiency, problem-solving, and critical reading.”
There is hope: If the Common Core is actually effective, successive generations of U.S. students with the necessary knowledge could help reverse the downward trend suggested by ETS. How would you do on the Core test? Try some sample questions here.