Calling for a New Approach to Building 21st Workforces: It’s About Skills Development, Not Education Attainment, Argue Experts Convened by the Forum for World Education

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Calling for a New Approach to Building 21st Workforces:…


Calling for a New Approach to Building 21st Workforces: It’s About Skills Development, Not Education Attainment, Argue Experts Convened by the Forum for World Education

As wealthy and developing nations alike seek to create workforces geared to 21st century opportunities and challenges, they are devoting intense effort to ensuring that students spend more years in school and earn higher-level degrees. But that emphasis may be misplaced, according to new analyses of the Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), the world’s largest skills assessment of adults, and other research.

Findings from PIAAC, administered by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) suggest that educational attainment does not necessarily correlate with skills development. Instead, to provide pathways out of poverty and build competitive economies, nations must focus on instilling foundational literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills. For many students, intensive career and technical education (CTE) may provide the best hope for learning and applying 21st century skills in a constantly changing world.

Those were some of the key takeaways from a recent webinar hosted by the Forum for World Education (FWE), a global nonprofit working to catalyze the transformation of education systems by creating a partnership between business and thought leaders.

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“Research has shown that higher-order skills rely on adequate levels of foundational skills that include literacy and numeracy,” said Irwin Kirsch, Director of the Centers for Global Assessment & Research on Human Capital and Education at Educational Testing Service. “If societies want employees who can learn independently and efficiently problem-solve in tech-intensive environments, they’ll need workers and citizens with these skills. The growing divergence between educational attainment and skills in PIAAC data raises critical questions about policies focused on educational credentials without similar consideration of skills development.”

Joining Kirsch, the moderator, on the panel were:

  • William Thorne, Senior Analyst in the Directorate of Education and Skills at OECD and PIAAC Project Director
  • Guido Schwerdt, Professor of Economics at the University of Konstanz in Germany
  • Alexandria Valerio, Resident Representative for The World Bank in the Dominican Republic, Latin America and Caribbean
  • Madon Padaki, Managing Trustee for the Head Held High Foundation, which seeks to transform he lives of rural, low-educated youth in India.

Among the key findings from their presentations:

Data from PIAAC are providing the first comparable measures over time of literacy and numeracy and revealing changes in the literacy and numeracy proficiency in dozens of countries during the past 20 years, Thorne reported.

The PIAAC results confirm that:

  • Younger adults (ages 25 to 34) score higher than adults ages 55-65, due to “age effects” and, typically, being much better educated than their older peers.
  • People who score higher in numeracy display higher levels of trust than others in society; greater belief that they can influence the political process; greater participation in voluntary activities such as associations; better health; higher wages.

Other analyses underscore that proficiency in key skills rather than educational attainment is driving the world’s more developed and faster-growing economies, Schwerdt reported.

  • A new test score-based measure of the “knowledge capital” of different nations – the marketable skills possessed by their workforces – shows that merely attending school for one year more has no impact on aggregate growth above and beyond its impact on the development of cognitive skills.
  • Schwerdt has shown that an increase of one standard deviation in an individual’s numeracy skills is associated with 20 percent higher earnings. But labor market returns to cognitive skills vary from increases of nearly 50 percent in earnings in faster-growing economies to increases of only 10 percent – a finding “very consistent with the idea that skills are particularly important to economies and for adaptations to new technologies.”

During the past 13 years, the World Bank’s STEP Skills Measurement has created a new window onto skills in developing countries, Valerio reported.  

  • Despite a substantial increase in schooling enrollment and attainment, STEP finds that improvement in skills worldwide has been, on average “narrow and uneven.” Only 35 percent of entrants into primary education complete upper secondary education, Valerio reported, and in some regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, the figure is below 25 percent.
  • The skills gap resulting from trends becomes permanent, with adults who emerge from education systems without robust fine literacy skills never acquiring the skills required for the labor market. In Bolivia, Ghana and Kenya, more than half of adults score below level two on literacy and are not job-ready or training-ready, Valerio said.


For the world’s poorest young people, targeted CTE may reap the greatest rewards. Padaki described the successes of the Head Held High Foundation’s “Make India Capable” program, a six-month, thousand-hour initiative to transform illiterate young adults in rural villages into skilled professionals in fields such as business process outsourcing. 

  • The Make India Capable (MIC) initiative transforms illiterate villagers into capable workers. It creates employment and business opportunities through life-skills training programs that are scalable and sustainable.
  • Head Held High, recipient of the CNN Real Heroes Award, has reached more than 10,000 youth and It aims to move 2 million villagers out of poverty by 2022.

“We’re still in the discovery phase, but I’d love to figure out how we can collaboratively build something that will work not just in India, but for the world as well,” Padaki said.

The Forum for World Education is a non-profit world organization with its headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts and with operations in major cities throughout the world. Its mission is to transform education in answer to the skills and knowledge requirements of current and future global society, its economic growth, societal progress and sustainability. FWE’s founders and steering committee include members of the OECD, former U.S. government officials, global business leaders and scholars from leading universities around the world.