Uptime: Are Adult Skills Lacking In America?

bob williamson thumb thumbRecent headlines attached to what must have been a widely distributed Associated Press article screamed out at me. Referring to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), they alluded to the fact that U.S. adults had scored below average in global comparisons of competencies that are relevant in today’s society and economy. A statement in the OECD report’s Executive Summary also screamed at me: “The technological revolution that began in the last decades of the 20th century has affected nearly every aspect of life in the 21st: from how we ‘talk’ with our friends and loved ones, to how we shop, and how and where we work.” I knew I needed to dig deeper into the overall issue and the role, if any, that technology might have played in the troubling statistics. 

Pouring through about 700 pages of the referenced report, “Skills Outlook 2013: First Result from the Survey of Adult Skills,” I was shocked to learn just how far behind their counterparts in other countries that working adults in the United States have slipped. That was real bad news. On a positive note, however, the report summarized the skills today’s adults must have to escape the fringes of employment and unemployment (skills that also boost a nation’s economic stability and growth). 

OECD’s report also suggested that the highest levels of educational attainment (college and university) do NOT necessarily equate to higher information processing and problem-solving skills. Our nation’s educational systems in general seem to be missing the mark when it comes not only to job and career skills, but also to the basic competencies required by our modern and information-rich society: Reading, math and problem-solving with information and communications technologies (ICT). And these are all learned skills. Without them, errors occur. (More on the OECD survey findings a little later.) 

Connecting adult-skills dots to safety and reliability
Competent job performance is essential—especially when we take into account the downside of human errors in the workplace. Consider the following areas:

ISO-55000: The global implications of a lack of skills in the workplace are obvious, especially given a new global focus on ISO-5500, the new Asset Management Standard (see “Uptime,” MT, September 2013.) Risk-based physical asset management as specified in ISO-55000 depends on people in the workplace reading and following work instructions, com-municating effectively across organizational boundaries, performing routine calculations and solving problems within a data-rich environment. How such skills are developed and deployed will have a major impact on physical-asset management throughout the entire life cycle.

Workplace safety: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 4383 fatal work-related injuries in 2012. Fires, explosions or exposure to harmful substances or environments accounted for 10%. Fifteen percent (15%) were associated with falls, slips or trips. Sixteen percent (16%) were related to contact with objects and equipment. Transportation or roadway incidents accounted for 41%. Violence by persons or animals accounted for another 17% of workplace fatalities in 2012. Fatal injuries, in most of these cases, were caused by NOT following workplace procedures.

Product recalls:  In 2011, more than 40 million pounds of food were recalled because of possible contamination, packaging and labeling errors. Poorly maintained food-processing equipment also led to major recalls. In the same year, well over 120,000 bicycles were recalled in light of defects that could injure the riders. Over 6.8 million faulty vehicles were recalled by automakers in 2011. Mistakes were made somewhere in product design, manufacturing, parts-sourcing, assembly or packaging.

Physical asset reliability: Equipment in our plants and facilities, as well as mobile equipment, can also fall victim to human errors and mistakes. These problems are mostly due to the lack of accurately following defined procedures (or the absence of procedures altogether). Unreliable equipment is dangerous, expensive to operate and has a serious (negative) impact on business’ profit and loss.

Technology is not the problem. The fact is, tech-nology in today’s workplace has not replaced human decision-making—at least not as much as designers had hoped it would. Accurately following detailed work instructions, using math to make decisions and engaging in real-time, information-based problem solving will continue to accelerate in today’s society and workplaces, regardless of technology.

Skills for gainful employment
Evidence suggests that, on average, our workforce, supervision and management may lack the informa-tion-processing skills—the competencies—to perform their jobs as needed. But, just what level of ability IS required to be gainfully employed and a productive member of society? There are three basic, complementary skill groupings: Occupational, generic employability and information processing.

Occupational skills: When we think of job skills, we often think of the basics of a trade, a career, a vocation. These are called “occupational skills.” They can be learned in school, through in-depth study and practice, and/or through on-the-job experience and training. Today’s industrial maintenance job skills still require the traditional mechanical, electrical and electronic skills. And those basic “craft” or “trade” skills have become increasingly more precise over the past two decades. But occupational skills alone are not enough in today’s world. 

Generic employability skills: Skills that round out a person’s ability to get along and manage the uncertainties of today’s rapidly changing world of work are called “generic skills.” These include interpersonal communications, self-management and the ability to learn, among others. 

Information-processing skills: Rapid technological growth in business and industry, as well as in our daily lives, has mandated a mastery of a number of “information processing skills.” Key information-processing skills relevant to many adults in today’s society and employment marketplace include:

  • Literacy (the ability of understand and respond appropriately to written texts)
  • Numeracy (the ability to use numerical and mathematical concepts)
  • Problem-solving in information-rich environments (the capacity to access, interpret and analyze infor-mation found, transformed and communicated in digital environments)

When we, as maintenance and reliability improvement professionals, reflect on the technology growth in our workplaces—and in our daily lives—it’s not surprising that “information-processing skills” are an ever-growing, ever-changing job-performance requirement. Programmable controllers, networked machines, high-level automation systems, interactive data sources, electronic/digital communications and information sharing have revolutionized many of our work places.

I believe we can all appreciate that there are skills gaps in today’s workplace. Solving problems in today’s technology-rich industrial plants, facilities, machines, equipment and processes definitely requires extensive information-processing skills—well beyond the basic “craft” or “trade” skills. This recently published OECD survey might have hit the nail squarely on the head given the skills shortages we are experiencing. 

Back to the OECD survey findings
The OECD’s report entitled “Skills Outlook 2013: First Result from the Survey of Adult Skills” was based on responses from nearly 170,000 adults, aged 16 to 65, in 24 countries (see Sidebar on U.S. respondents, page 14). To learn more about the demographics of the 5010 U.S. respondents, go to www.mt-online.com/OECDsurvey.

How respondents from various countries ranked… 

Literacy: On a scale of 1 (lowest) through 5 (highest) the average score among U.S. adults (270 points, which corresponds to proficiency Level 2) is similar to that in Germany and England/Northern Ireland (UK). This score is higher than the average in France, Italy, Poland and Spain, but lower than that in Australia, Canada and Japan. Overall, U.S. adults ranked 10th in literacy skills.

Numeracy (math): On a scale of 1 (lowest) through 5 (highest) the average score in the U.S. (253 points, corresponding to Level 2) is higher than that in only two comparison countries (Italy and Spain) and similar to France. Overall, U.S. adults ranked 12th in numeracy skills.

Problem-solving in technology-rich environments: On a scale of 1 (lowest) through 3 (highest) nearly one in three U.S. adults (31%) score at least at Level 2, slightly below the average across all participating countries (34%) and close to Korea’s average (30%). The Netherlands and Finland are among the top performers in this domain, with about 42% of adults performing at Level 2 and above. One in three adults in the U.S. scored at Level 1 proficiency. The remaining one third is evenly divided between those who score lower than Level 1 in problem solving and those who were unable to display any skills in this domain. Overall, U.S. adults ranked ninth in Problem Solving with Information & Communications Technologies (ICT).

Reskilling the U.S. labor force
It’s true. Adult skills ARE lacking in America’s workplaces. Unfortunately, many adults have not kept pace with the information-age technologies found in most workplaces. This is due in part to lack of effective employer-delivered training, fragmented business applications and limited community-based adult continuing-education programs. To overcome those deficiencies, we must take action now.

First, we must assure the timely transfer of occupational skills and knowledge from the aging Baby Boom generation BEFORE these Boomers leave the workplace. Secondly, we must ensure that all workers have the skills necessary for meaningful and rewarding employment and the economic success of businesses: That includes generic employability skills and problem-solving/information processing skills. Businesses cannot do this by themselves.

To borrow a phrase, we need to “think globally, act locally” for the future well-being of our communities, our families and generations to come. Ask what your local agencies are doing to ensure the continuing improvement of adult literacy, numeracy and ICT problem-solving skills to meet local and regional requirements of living-wage jobs. Then, take action to align and promote community- and region-based developmental opportunities with the needs of our adults and businesses. MT

Resources used in this column

OECD Survey of Adult Skills documents: [www.oecd.org/site/piaac/publications.htm]

OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills 

OECD Skills Outlook 2013 Tables of Results: Annex A 

The Survey of Adult Skills Reader’s Companion OECD (2013) 

Quick Facts About the Survey of Adult Skills

UNITED STATES – Country Note –Survey of Adult Skills - First results 

Robert Williamson, CMRP, CPMM and member of the Institute of Asset Management, is in his fourth decade of focusing on the “people side” of world-class maintenance and reliability in plants and facilities across North America. Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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