With its first cycle of surveys completed and second cycle well underway, the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) has aggregated important evidence and data about adult skills in over 34 countries.
We catch up with Mr Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills, and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and hear his insights on the findings of PIAAC, skills development and challenges faced by economies today. Mr Schleicher was present at the 4th PIAAC conference, held for the first time in Asia with Singapore playing host.
Automation and hollowing out of jobs have radically altered the nature of work and life. For those with the right knowledge, skills and character, this is liberating and exciting. But for those insufficiently prepared, it can mean the scourge of vulnerable work, and life without prospects.
The only thing that can help people accept that their job may disappear is the confidence that they have the knowledge and skills to find or create a new one. That means the focus of education needs to shift from stacking up qualifications up-front to learning continuously.
The dilemma is that what is easiest to teach and test is also what is easiest to digitise, automate and outsource. The digital world no longer rewards people just for what they know – Google knows everything – but for what they can do with what they know.
Without the right skills, people will languish on the margins of society, technological progress will not translate into economic growth, and countries can’t compete in the global economy.
Where large shares of adults have poor skills, it becomes difficult to introduce productivity-enhancing technologies and new ways of working, which then stalls improvements in living standards.
PIAAC data also shows that poor skills severely limit access to better-paying and more rewarding jobs. In countries with comparable data, adults with lower skills are far more likely to report poor health, perceive themselves as objects rather than actors in political processes, and have less trust in others. We can’t develop fair and inclusive policies if a lack of proficiency in basic skills prevents people from fully participating in society.
Countries like Canada that have good devices to anticipate the evolution of skill-demand have a major advantage. Government and business work together to gather evidence about skills demand, present and future, which can then be used to develop and inform instructional systems.
Also, countries like Sweden or Denmark have done well in integrating working and learning in adult life. People have many ways to establish what they learn, and how, when and where they learn. That is supported by very modular education systems and a very granular qualification system that rewards skills-based lifelong learning.
A strong culture of work-based learning in countries such as Switzerland or Germany helps integrate young people into the labour-market. Workplace learning allows people to develop “hard” skills on modern equipment, and “soft” skills, such as teamwork. Trade unions in these countries also help shape training, ensure skills are used adequately, and that investments in training are reflected in better-quality jobs and higher salaries.
The toxic co-existence of unemployed graduates and employers who cannot find people with the necessary skills underlines that more education does not automatically translate into better outcomes. We need to understand what skills drive outcomes, ensure that the right skill mix is being learned and help economies make good use of those skills.
In some countries, skills mismatch is a serious challenge that is mirrored in earning prospects and productivity. High-quality career guidance services, complemented with up-to-date information about labour-market prospects, can help young people make sound career choices.
Some countries also have effective active labour-market measures, such as counselling, job-search assistance and temporary hiring subsidies for low-skilled youth. They link income support for young people to their search for work and engagement in measures to improve their employability.
The comparative assessment of the talent pool which PIAAC provides is a major asset guiding skills policies, and gives the backdrop for peer-learning and collaboration. It enables an understanding of the sources of strengths of economies and the link between skills and economic and social outcomes.
Would anyone have thought that Japanese high school graduates are almost as highly skilled as American college graduates before PIAAC revealed the skills-value of degrees and qualifications? The Japanese are highly skilled, but PIAAC shows that the Japanese economy makes poor use of their skills, because the labour-market is rigid and siloed. Young Americans move into the labour-market with no better skills than Americans leaving for retirement, despite having much higher formal qualifications. But USA does better at extracting value from skills, and turns skills into better jobs and lives at a faster rate than any other country.
We generally don’t prescribe solutions to countries, but we tell them what everyone else is doing and with what success. So for a number of countries, we have prepared comparative analyses of the PIAAC data that point them to policies and practices elsewhere from which they can learn. By providing evidence on the benefits of difficult reforms, we help countries lower the political cost of action. And by showing where countries fall behind, we raise the political cost of inaction.
Singapore is the posterchild for turning research and evidence into action, with enormous attention to the details of policy implementation. Another of its strengths is that Singapore is never afraid to look outwards. I believe that the differentiator between countries that fall behind and those that advance is increasingly whether they feel threatened by alternative ways of thinking or whether they are ready to learn from the world’s best experiences.