Millennial Tech Workers Losing Ground in U.S.

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.

Check out the latest technology jobs.

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.

Upload Your ResumeEmployers want candidates like you. Upload your resume. Show them you’re awesome.

Image: rodho/

12 Responses to “Millennial Tech Workers Losing Ground in U.S.”

  1. Fred Bosick

    While Millennials *may* be behind foreign peers(a student testing company is not an objective observer), technical job seekers are self selected. So these results probably don’t reflect the performance of self identified computer mavens. The proper method is to test college attendees who have already selected a technical major.

    You will find that they are quite competitive/better than their offshore peers. Their failing is to expect a lifestyle that a desperate 3rd World indentured IT servant will gladly forego in order to obtain the precious Green Card. Corporate America has ensured this situation by buying our politicians so as to keep the IT/engineering wages and salaries low.

    After all, only salesmen and corporate officers deserve good pay. Everyone else is a cost center and are only kept around because they can do things that are beneath(code for “unable to do”) the above mentioned business royalty. With multiple CRM systems available, the salesman only has to keep extra pens on his person and plunk down the company CC for the booze and strippers. And, as for the executives, the demand for BI(business “intelligence”) trained IT staff, who are already on the hook for their *own* IT training, offloads even more of the business related intellectual heavy lifting from the “job creators”. As we have seen with the Great Recession of 2008, the bankruptcy of Long Term Capital Management(staffed/stuffed(?) with Nobel Prize economists), and the collapse of Enron(the smartest guys in the room), there isn’t much intelligence left to offload!

    Ultimately, these specious claims of student incompetence is just part of a long term strategy to increase the work visa quotas.

  2. As someone who’s actually worked with some of the overseas rejects, I can tell you 1 educated American worker will still outperform a team of 5 Indians or Paki’s

  3. Maybe because the pay isn’t high enough for the amount of work and knowledge required, and most millenials have decided to work in other sectors for the same pay and no headaches.

  4. Terry Lambert

    A “world-class collegiate system”?

    When it comes to software engineering, at least, the U.S. has not been world class, with the exception of a handful of schools, since around 1985, when the ABET standards changed, and people stopped being taught programming language courses. Instead, you got courses like “Database programming using C”, where you were expected to learn the tools on your own time, and never actually learned them in depth.

    My favorite analogy is that this is the equivalent of a woodworking class where you learn “chair theory” and “table theory”, and so on, and then when you go to get a job in the real world, you are shown to a woodshop with a band saw, table saw, joiner, lathe, and so on. Someone is going to lose some fingers, because they don’t know how to use their tools.

    I also really disdain “whole word” reading vs. phonetic reading, as well; it means that you will not be able to understand words you’ve never seen before even if you’ve heard them and use them in conversation regularly, and it means you will likely be unable to even try to spell words you’ve heard, but not seen written.

    Finally, I disdain much of the “core” math programs. I can just spit out the answer for a two digit by two digit addition/subtraction/multiplication/division problem; kids learning with current methods have to at least think about it, and often have to resort to paper.

    Outcome based education (and the ABET accreditation standard for Computer Science *specifically* uses the terminology “outcome based”!) has really failed this counter, and screwed up at least one, and possibly two, generations through its pursuit. We should consider hitting the 35-45 year rest button, and going back to what worked.

    PS: Don’t get me started on universities canceling required courses to stretch 4 year degrees into 5 year degrees, because it’s cheaper to deal with collecting money than it is to expend resources on new “customer capture”.

  5. Jason Mosall

    “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.”

    Who cares what this guy thinks about education? Please do your homework and ask actual educators next time. Technocrats are routinely regarded as the folks that will ‘save education’. Don’t forget that the common core (big microsoft money along others) and charter schools have their own adgenda, that involves breaking the back of the school teachers in this country, as well as wrestling control from the state and local Govenment.

  6. As someone with a degree in Electrical Engineering I find this article somewhat lacking in the needed information to draw any form of conclusion. Millennials are being accused of being behind others in problem solving skills, but no mention as to what specific area they are behind in. Problem solving is a fairly broad area. Usually it’s used as a placeholder for something else. My experience with both foreign and domestic tech workers has been they are on fairly equal footing. The difference is in how much it costs to train them up to your needs.

    All colleges teach your basic skillset (Higher mathmatics, circuitry, DSPs, Dynamics, Statics, Physics, etc) when it comes to a STEM degree. When these people leave school and hit the workforce the fact they require training in a particular methodology (Six Sigma, Agile, etc) is now being viewed as a lack of skills. These skills used to be taught to new hires during the first few months of employment in entry level positions. Now companies are expecting new hires to already have this knowledge that is unique to their company alone creating a perfect catch 22 scenario.

    Foreign tech workers have these skills because said companies train them in much the same way they used to train domestic workers. It just costs them less. Why do you think these same companies push so hard for more H1B visas?

  7. Tõnu Tõukemõnu

    Haven’t Asian immigrants already solved this problem? There’s a cosmic justice in there that virile foreigners who kicked out the natives have themselves become comfortable and will be kicked out by virile foreigners. Roman empire all over again. Maybe your future overlords will let you play Farmville on welfare our of pity, kind of like Indian casinos.

    • Leee Roy

      agree. Notice how the “study” failed to include the vast majority of the world’s population. No India, no China, nobody in Africa, nobody in South America….. no Turkey, Nigeria, Iran, Pakistan, Thailand… et cetera

  8. The problem begins much earlier than the university/college level as the article points out. The American education system is overspending and under-performing due to its dominance by government. Farces like “Common Core” will just make things worse. It benefits the education establishment at the expense of students, parents, and taxpayers.

    It’s time for personal responsibility and real choices to the government education monopoly and the bloated, overpriced “higher education” system. Will DICE give us articles on real, valid options? I won’t hold my breath waiting.

  9. BeTheChange

    Another piece of corporate propaganda. I work in Silly-con Valley and I see with my own eyes that whole departments are made up of Indians. The reason? THEY CAN PAY THEM LESS. Yes – it’s the same old greedy, morally bankrupt corporations lying their repulsive asses off so that all the money can again be shifted up to the six old white farts at the top, who disgustingly ream the company (and our country) of hundreds of millions by “cutting costs” by paying everyone else LESS. Get real! Wake up and grow a spine America! Barf out your weak apathy – then vote, riot and bring out the pitchforks… before you find yourself in grinding poverty by our corrupt government, which is completely owned by the rich crooks.