Study: U.S. Millennials’ Skills Don’t Match Education

By Bill Leonard Mar 25, 2015
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Millennials are on track to be the best educated generation in U.S. history, but their education level isn’t translating into the job skills that most employers seek, according to a recent study report from Educational Testing Service (ETS).

The ETS study analyzed the scores for literacy and math skills collected by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for its Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies. Researchers for the OECD study interviewed approximately 166,000 adults from 22 countries, and the ETS analysis of the OECD data found that the job skills of U.S. Millennials (individuals born after 1980) lag significantly behind their counterparts in other developed nations.

When their reading and writing skills were compared with workers in other countries, U.S. Millennials scored lower than their peers in 15 of the 22 nations included in the study. The U.S. tied with several countries, and only Millennials in Spain and Italy had lower scores than Americans, the analysis revealed.

“A decade ago, the skill level of American adults was judged ‘mediocre,’ ” the ETS report stated. “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.”

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. Millennials failed to meet minimum standards for understanding and working with numbers, which placed Americans dead last for math and number skills. And, despite a reputation for being tech-savvy, U.S. Millennials scored poorly on problem-solving in technology-rich environments. According to the data, 56 percent of American Millennials failed to meet the basic proficiency, again ranking last among the 22 countries examined.

The ETS analysis also found that the education that America’s younger generations now receive from U.S. colleges appears to be lacking. Even though Millennials in the U.S. have the highest percentage of college graduates of any generation in history, they still trail younger workers in other countries. For example, young adults in Japan, Finland and the Netherlands who had only a high school degree scored on par in the OECD study with their U.S. counterparts who had earned four-year college degrees, the ETS study reported.

“The skills of our Millennials, who will be the workers, the decision-makers and the parents of the next 40 years, will also have cascading effects on every level of society,” the report concluded. “Policymakers and other stakeholders will need to shift the conversation from one of educational attainment to one that acknowledges the growing importance of skills and examines these more critically.”

The lower job skill level among Millennials may also be adversely affecting their job prospects. A study on the employment and career attainment of U.S. workers released on March 19, 2015, by the Pew Research Center found that a lower percentage of Millennials hold jobs when compared to other generations at the same point in their careers. The Pew research revealed that 78 percent of males in both Generation X and the Baby Boom Generation held jobs when they were between the ages of 18 and 33, compared to 68 percent of male Millennials today. Employment of young women had continued to grow with each generation and hit its highest number of 69 percent for Generation X members in 1998; that number is at 63 percent for Millennial women employed at the end of 2014.

Researchers for Pew attributed Millennials’ lower employment rate to the Great Recession of 2008-09. Many Millennials attempted to enter the workforce as the impact of the recession wreaked havoc on the U.S. job market. While the U.S. job market strengthened in 2014, a higher percentage of Millennials are seeking both bachelor’s and post-graduate degrees when compared to the other generations. For example, at the end of 2014, approximately 18 percent of 18- to 33-year-olds were enrolled full time in college, compared to 11 percent of Generation X when they were the same age.

The lower employment rate of Millennials also coincides with the drop in job skill levels revealed in the ETS study. Several sources familiar with the issue point out that the since Millennials have faced a tougher job market and are launching their careers later, then their work experience and skills typically acquired on the job will be considerably less when compared to other generations. This job skills conundrum is putting pressure on employers to find ways to train and educate workers to develop the skills businesses need.

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.

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