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United States’ skills snapshot

The United States has a highly-educated population, but more could be done to improve the quality of educational outcomes in terms of basic foundation skills in literacy, numeracy and science skills, and to improve the match between the skills individuals possess and those required in the labour market.

Key findings

Developing the relevant skills

  • How well does the US education system perform? In the 2009 PISA tests of 15-year-olds, the United States performs above the OECD average in reading (rank 17), slightly above average in science (rank 23) and below average in mathematics (rank 31).1
  • Does the United States invest enough in education and training? The United States spent 7.3% of its annual income on education in 2009, compared to the OECD average of 6.2%.2
  • How much are US citizens undertaking further education? In 2005, 46% of US citizensparticipated in continuing non-formal education compared to the OECD average of 34%.3
  • How equal is access to opportunities for further training in the United States? In 2005, 63% of people aged 25-64 with a tertiary-level education participated in formal and/or non-formal education, compared with 23% for people in the same age group with below upper secondary education.4
  • Should more be done to prevent skills shortages? In the aftermath of the economic and financial crisis, the proportion of US employers reporting recruitment difficulties fell substantially while the unemployment rate doubled. However, despite unemployment remaining at a high level, this proportion subsequently rose to 52% in 2011 compared with its crisis value of 41% in 2007.5 6 This suggests that more should be done in the United States, both through the education system and by employers themselves, in providing training to meet skill requirements in the labour market.

Supplying skills

  • Is there scope to improve skill utilisation in the United States through strengthening labour force participation? In 2011, 82% of the people aged between 25 and 54 were in the labour force, compared to an OECD average of 81%.7 However, the participation rate for prime-age women (aged 25-54) is above the OECD average at 75% in 2010 (OECD average 71%).8 
  • To what extent are the United States’ older workers supplying their skills to the labour market? In 2011, 64.3% of people aged 55 to 64 were in the labour force, compared to an OECD average of 57.8%.9

Using skills

  • How smooth is the transition from school to work for  US youth?  The employment rate of American youth in 2011 was 45.5%, compared with the OECD average of 39.3%.10 In 2011, the unemployment rate for US youth was 17.3%, a relatively high rate compared with the OECD average of 16.2%.11
  • Are the qualifications of US workers well matched with the requirements of their jobs? In 2005, 36% of US workers were over-qualified for their jobs (against theOECD average of 25%), and 20% were under-qualified (against the OECD average of 22%).12 Over-qualified (under-qualified) workers are those who have a higher (lower) qualification than the most common qualification of all other workers in the same occupation

Key recommendations from the OECD Skills Strategy

A country can develop the relevant skills by encouraging and enabling people to learn throughout life; fostering international mobility of skilled people to fill skills gaps; and promoting cross-border skills policies.

A country can activate the supply of skills by encouraging people to offer their skills to the labour market and retaining skilled people in the labour market.

A country can put skills to effective use by creating a better match between people’s skills and the requirements of their job and increasing the demand for high-level skills.

For more information, see the:

OECD Policy Map on Skills | OECD Skills Strategy | Skills Strategy: Overview


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