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Adult Learning Success: What The Data Says


Held for the first time in Asia, the 4th PIAAC International Conference took place in Singapore from 21-23 November 2017 and saw more than 200 local and international experts gathered to discuss and share insights on various analyses arising from the use of PIAAC data.

How well-equipped are the labour forces around the world to embrace the imminent changes in the global economic environment and what is the role of learning in the upgrading and re-skilling of workforce?

These were what delegates from more than 30 countries gathered together to discuss at the 4th PIAAC International Conference. The annual conference was held to promote the use of data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) to better understand the deployment of skills in the economy and its influence on workplace training related policies.

Opening the conference was Mr Ng Cher Pong, the Deputy Secretary (SkillsFuture) of Ministry of Education and Chief Executive of SkillsFuture Singapore, who in his speech highlighted the importance of data such as the one that PIAAC provides, in assisting governments and institutions in making policy decisions that will help the workforce remain competitive and relevant.

“How we use the insights from PIAAC and draw on new empirical ground data to inform new ways of thinking and novel approaches for workforce development will be critical. This applies to various aspects of policy and practice.”Mr Ng Cher Pong, Deputy Secretary (SkillsFuture) of Ministry of Education and Chief Executive of SkillsFuture Singapore

This is especially pertinent in today’s digital disruption age, he added. Concurring on this point was 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) who said, “Workers need to keep on learning at various stages of life to face the changes brought by digitalisation.”

Mr Schleicher shared that digitalisation has meant that more jobs required workers to have competency in non-routine tasks and to use information and communications technology at their workplace.

Boosting Adult Education With ALS

The first invited speaker Associate Professor Richard Desjardins from University of California, Los Angeles shared his findings from his study on adult learning systems (ALS) in various countries around the world. According to Professor Desjardins, the available data gathered showed that there is a general trend of more adult learning systems being established around the world, and employer-supported adult education is growing faster than overall adult education.

Addressing Gaps in Skills

Touching on the topic of gender gaps in skills and wages was Professor Sara de la Rica, Associate Fellow at the Spanish Foundation for Applied Economics and Professor of Economics at the University of the Basque Country (Spain). Using data from 22 OECD countries, she found that while most of the gaps were near negligible for literacy skills, there was a significant disparity in numeracy skills between men and women, particularly for high performers, and this accounts for a portion of the gender wage gap.

Though more information and research was required in this area of study, she did suggest that the gaps in numeracy skills had to be addressed during formative schooling years rather than when entering the labour market.

University of Cambridge Professor of Education and Director of Research, Anna Vignoles presented her findings on financial literacy skills of adults around the world. Gender gaps in financial literacy skills were not skewed towards one gender, and they got bigger amongst older age groups. Low financial literacy skills were not found only in middle income countries, but also some larger and more mature economies such as England, Spain and Italy.

Professor Vignoles also highlighted the need for interventions to boost adult financial skills.

Rounding up the speaker presentations were Professor Johnny Sung, Centre Director of Skills, Performance and Productivity at the Institute for Adult Learning (IAL) and Professor Beatrice Rammstedt, Scientific Director of Survey Design and Methodology and Vice President at the GESIS Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences.

Professor Sung made a case for why job quality should be measured and how it can impact skills policies, while Professor Rammstedt discussed how non-cognitive skills such as openness and emotional stability can describe an incremental aspect of human capital. She also shared how there is an increasing number of large scale surveys such as Word Value Survey, International Social Survey Programme and Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe, which see the significance of these type of skills.

The conference also included 10 paper presentations and participants walked away with a better understanding of possible policies that could be implemented based on the research presented.

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PIAAC is a worldwide study by the OECD in 34 countries of cognitive and workplace skills. Its results have been widely used in international research publications. In July 2017, the World Economic Forum published a White Paper on “Accelerating Workforce Reskilling for the Fourth Industrial Revolution”, which extracted data from OECD’s PIAAC study. The paper also featured Singapore’s initiatives to ensure that the local workforce is future ready, such as IAL’s blended learning approach and role in developing adult educators for a wide range of industries in Singapore. Read here.