Friday, October 11, 2013

Taking on the ‘Skills Crisis’ at the Local Level

By Matt DeVeau, Project Associate.

At Market Street, we talk a lot about looming workforce skill shortages and education delivery systems that are struggling to produce even adequate results, let alone world-class outcomes. Many of our client communities are dealing with one of these issues and some have the unenviable task of facing both. So pervasive are these issues that it’s only natural to – on occasion – become desensitized to them. But inevitably, a new study or report will be released that quickly brings the true gravity of the situation back to the forefront. Such was the case this week when the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international economic organization of 34 developed nations, released its “Skills Outlook 2013.” Now it can be said again, in no uncertain terms: the United States is facing a mounting talent crisis.

OECD surveyed approximately 166,000 individuals aged 16 to 65 in 24 countries and sub-national regions to assess proficiency in three areas: literacy, numeracy (mathematics), and problem solving in technology-rich environments. The full results are available in a massive 466-page report, but this article from The New York Times does a good job of summarizing the key issues.

On the whole, the United States fared poorly in the assessment, but there is one sliver of data that stands out as the most alarming: performance broken down by 10-year age groups. Among the oldest age group comprised of people aged 55 to 65, the United States performs well in literacy on average, ranking fourth behind Japan, Slovakia, and England/Northern Ireland (Figure 1). But among the youngest age group, 16 to 24 year-olds, things are markedly different. The United States is well below average, ranking fifth worst (Figure 2).

Source: OECD, results include only OECD nations and sub-nations, with England and Northern Ireland treated as a single entity

So what happened? It’s not the case that younger Americans are less literate. In fact, they score higher than their older counterparts. Instead, the decline is a relative one – other nations have had more success in improving literacy through successive generations. In Finland, the oldest age cohort produced average literacy scores, but younger Finns rank second behind only Japan. In Korea, the difference is even more pronounced: older Koreans rank fourth worst, younger Koreans rank fourth best. And though older adults in the United States did not score as well on numeracy (mathematics), the trend is similar. Americans aged 16 to 24 actually had the lowest numeracy proficiency among 22 nations and sub-nations. The world isn’t just gaining on the United States – they’ve already passed us.

A study such as this raises many questions, and according to Anthony P. Carnevale of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the first one is: “If we’re so dumb, why are we so rich?” In The Times article, he provides his answer:

“Our economic advantage has been having high skill levels at the top, being big, being more flexible than the other economies, and being able to attract other countries’ most skilled labor. But that advantage is slipping.”

I agree with Carnevale, particularly on that last point. So logically, the next question should be, “What can be done to fix this?” Here, the answer is more complicated, so instead of offering an incomplete set of prescriptive solutions, I’ll touch briefly on how this work can get done.

Ideally, the information in this OECD report and other studies would set off alarm bells that would lead to a concerted, nation-wide effort to improve education. I don’t think it’s overly cynical to say that this will not happen. As I write, the federal government has been shut down for 11 days, and the short- to medium-term prospects for any kind of significant legislative action are dim. Things are not necessarily better at the state level, either. The vast majority of states cut funding for education in the wake of the Great Recession, and seven states have cut per-pupil spending by more than 15 percent.

But while the federal government can set high-level policies and states frequently determine curriculums and funding formulas, primary and secondary education still remains largely under local control. This is the level at which concerned parties can have the biggest impact. Many of Market Street’s client communities from around the country have taken bold steps to improve educational delivery systems and outcomes and, ultimately, create a more skilled workforce. One notable example is Nashville. Since 1998, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce has supported high-quality candidates for the community’s board of education through its SuccessPAC political action committee. Various public, private, and non-profit leaders in the community have also coordinated their efforts through Alignment Nashville, a 501(c)(3) formed in 2004 to positively impact public school success, children’s health, and the success of the community as a whole.

These initiatives are not easy to implement. School board elections can be contentious, and being involved in them requires conviction and courage on the part of the community’s business leaders. The members of Alignment Nashville’s 23 distinct committees put in long hours in pursuit of strategic goals. But as the latest OECD data indicates, this hard work is vital. A handful of local initiatives cannot by themselves improve the United States’ top-line skills proficiency, but they can help secure a community’s competitive future. And if nothing else, the represent what is possible at the moment. This is the work that can be done, so it is the work that should be done.