Friday 11 October 2013

Adults lack the skills needed to help nations recover: Study

Spain, Italy fare badly in maths, literacy, computers
The Straits Times, 10 Oct 2013

PARIS - Ms Andrea Ortiz, a 24-year-old Spaniard, has degrees in law and business yet works for a multinational clothing company as a store clerk.

She has little hope of advancement and fears that when she does get a job she wants, she will have no idea how to do it well.

"You arrive in class, they give you a book and they ask you to learn it, that's it. The teachers are very educated and well-trained, but I think that on many occasions they do not know how to transmit that knowledge," said Ms Ortiz, who sells clothes at Zara in Madrid. "The day will come when I have to join a company and I won't know the basics of how an office works."

Her fears may be well-founded, according to a study released Tuesday that shows many countries in dire economic trouble have workforces that lack the skills needed to prompt an economic recovery.

In the first global study of adult skills, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) interviewed 166,000 people from 24 countries and regions - a rich sample of people from all walks of life who agreed to sit down for tests that could last up to 90 minutes.

The results from mostly industrialised countries offered a snapshot into how people of different ages are educated, work and adapt to a changing world. It did not include China, India, or Brazil - among the world's fastest developing countries - or Singapore. "We're looking at decades of policy. We're looking across generations," said OECD director for employment, labour and social affairs Stefano Scarpetta.

Ms Gong Juhui is the same age as Ms Ortiz, but says the education and training she received in her native South Korea have given her a very different outlook. She graduated from college with a degree in social welfare. With about four hours of computing classes a week, she learnt how to make websites and use complex graphics programmes and felt confident and well prepared to start work.

Ms Gong's first job, producing fund-raising websites, required logic, planning and writing skills - all of which she learnt at school and honed at work. Her country's 3 per cent unemployment rate is among the world's lowest.

Literacy (the ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts), a facility with numbers and the ability to adapt to new technologies are among the strongest indicators of earning power.

Without those skills, economists say, workers will find themselves unable to compete in a globalised world.

Adults in Spain and Italy, two of the countries suffering the most in the European debt crisis and economic downturn, landed at the bottom of the list for proficiency in maths and literacy among 16 to 65-year-olds. They were also near the bottom in the proportion of working-age adults with a minimal familiarity with computers.

Both countries suffer from high unemployment - Spain has a 26.2 per cent jobless rate, and over half of its workers younger than 25 are without jobs. Italy's unemployment rate is just over 12 per cent, with 40 per cent of its young people jobless.

The survey found that about one-in-four Spanish adults scored at the lowest levels of literacy and one-in-three at the lowest levels in numeracy. In contrast, Japanese and Dutch adults who were aged 25 to 34 yet only completed high school easily outperformed Italian or Spanish university graduates of the same age.

"That is the kind of thing that makes me question - what are the longer term prospects of these countries to improve, to really get back at a trajectory of long-term stable growth?" said economist Jacob Kirkegaard, of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Large portions of Italian and Spanish adults have minimal familiarity with computers - nearly one in four in Italy, and nearly one in five in Spain - a lack that will make it increasingly difficult to gain new skills.

Mr Kirkegaard hopes governments address the implications of the survey's results, which were fairly dismal for Ireland and France as well - both countries that have suffered in the economic downturn."It's no longer enough to be smarter than your parents," he said. "If you want to have a job that earns more than minimum wage, you have to have the skills that allow you to take advantage of technology... because if you don't, you're going to be in a situation where technology is going to replace you."



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