The low-skilled are more likely than others to be unemployed, have bad health and earn much less, according to the first OECD Survey of Adult Skills. Countries with greater inequality in skills proficiency also have higher income inequality.

The OECD Survey of Adult Skills is the new PISA for adults (otherwise known as PIAAC). The Survey measured the skills of 16 to 65-year olds across 24 countries* and looked at how literacy, numeracy and problem-solving is used at work.  It provides clear evidence of how developing and using skills improves employment prospects and quality of life as well as boosting economic growth. It helps countries set meaningful targets benchmarked against the achievements of the world’s leading skills systems and to develop relevant policy responses.

“Too many people are being left behind today,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría “With effective education and life-long learning everyone can develop their full potential. The benefits are clear, not only for individuals, but also for societies and for the economy.”

Launching the report in Brussels with with Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, Mr. Gurría added. “Learning does not stop at school: governments, businesses and people can and must continue investing in skills throughout life.

The survey shows that high quality initial education is an important predictor for success in adult life. But countries must combine this with flexible, skills-oriented learning opportunities throughout life, in particular for working-age adults.

The results reveal the challenges some major economies face in boosting their skills levels. In reading, over one in five adults in Italy (27.7%), Spain (27.5%) and France (21.6%) perform at or below the most basic level, compared with one in twenty Japanese (4.9%) and one in ten Finns (10.6%)

Almost one in three adults in Italy (31.7%), Spain (30.6%) and the United States (28.7%) perform at or below the most basic level of numeracy, compared to around one in ten in Japan (8.2%), Finland (12.8%) and the Czech Republic (12.8%)

The Survey also reveals the extent of the “digital divide”, with millions failing to master even simple computer skills, such as using a computer mouse. This ranges from nearly one in four adults in Italy, Korea, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Spain to one in fourteen adults in the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.

Progress across generations

Some countries have made impressive progress over recent decades in equipping more people with better literacy and numeracy skills. Young Koreans, for example, are outperformed only by their Japanese peers, while Korea’s 55 to 64 year-olds are among the three lowest-performing groups of this age. Older Finns perform around the average, while younger Finns are among the top performers, together with Japan, Korea and the Netherlands

But in England and the United States, the literacy and numeracy skills of young people entering the labour market are no better than those leaving for retirement. England ranks among the top three countries surveyed for literacy skills among the 55-65 year-olds. But the country is in the bottom three when it comes to such skills among 16-25 year-olds. American 55-65 year-olds perform around the average, but young Americans rank the lowest among their peers in the 24 countries surveyed.

Gap between skills and educational qualifications

 The Survey revealed large differences in some cases between a person’s actual skill levels and their educational qualifications. In most countries at least a quarter of university graduates fall into the bottom two levels out of five on the literacy test. But in Australia, Finland, Japan, the Netherlands and Norway, more than one in four adults without a high school degree achieved Level 3, showing that people can learn skills despite limited early schooling.

Impact of social background varies

Social background has a strong impact on skills in some countries. The children of parents with low levels of education in England, Germany, Italy, Poland and the US have much weaker reading skills than their peers with better educated parents. In contrast, Australia, Estonia, Japan and Sweden show the smallest difference between these two groups.

Economic and social impact of skills

On average, the median hourly wage of workers scoring at the top levels (levels 4 & 5) on the literacy scale is 61% higher than that of workers scoring at or below Level 1. Differences in this “return on investment” vary widely: in several countries, such as the Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Sweden, the gap in wages is relatively narrow, but is much wider in the United States, Korea, Ireland, Canada and Germany.

Adults with low skills are also more likely to place less trust in others and feel less civically engaged compared with the highly skilled.

Challenges for immigrants

Immigrants performed worse than the native-born, especially those who did not learn the language of their new country as a child. But skills proficiency improves with length of stay in the host country, pointing to the important role of integration policies.

Adult learning

The highly skilled were on average three times more likely to take part in further training than the low skilled. The Survey suggests that Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden have been most successful in boosting adult learning rates among the low-skilled. But countries with large shares of low-skilled adults, such as Canada, England and Northern Ireland, Ireland, Italy, Spain and the US, will need to do more to make adult learning more accessible, especially in the workplace.