Millennials’ Weak Skills Threaten America’s Competitiveness

Tom Ewing


Princeton, N.J. (Feb. 17, 2015) – Despite having the highest levels of educational attainment of any previous generation, America’s millennials, on average, demonstrate weak skills in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments compared to their international peers. This finding from a new study by Educational Testing Service (ETS) raises the question of whether we can thrive as a nation when a large segment of our society lacks the skills required for higher-level employment and meaningful engagement in our democracy.

America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future uses data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) to compare the U.S. to 21 other member countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The report focuses on young adults born after 1980 who were 16–34 years of age at the time of the assessment. PIAAC measured adult skills across three domains: literacy, numeracy and problem solving in a technology-rich environment (PS-TRE).

ETS researchers Madeline Goodman, Anita Sands and Richard Coley focused on this population because these young adults are the most recent product of our educational systems. They have also attained the most years of schooling of any cohort in American history. And, these millennials will shape the economic and social landscape of our country for many years to come.  

“While it is true that, on average, the more years of schooling one completes, the more skills one acquires, this report suggests that far too many are graduating high school and completing postsecondary educational programs without receiving adequate skills,” writes Irwin Kirsch, Director of ETS’s Center for Global Assessment, in the report’s preface. “If we expect to have a better educated population and a more competitive workforce, policymakers and other stakeholders will need to shift the conversation from one of educational attainment to one that acknowledges the growing importance of skills.”

The authors report that average scores for U.S. millennials were lower than in many other countries and ranked at the bottom in numeracy and PS-TRE. More worrisome is the fact that the youngest segment of the U.S. millennial cohort (16- to 24-year-olds), who could be the labor force for the next 50 years, also ranked last in numeracy and among the bottom countries in PS-TRE.

Additionally, the data reveal that even our best performing and most educated millennials, those who are native born, and those with the greatest economic advantage in relative terms, do not perform favorably in comparison to their peers internationally.  In fact, in numeracy, the U.S.’s top performing millennials scored lower than top-performing millennials in 15 of the 22 participating countries, indicating that the skills challenge is systemic. Low-scoring U.S. millennials ranked last and scored lower than their peers in 19 participating countries.

Looking at performance by educational attainment, millennials with a four-year bachelor’s degree scored higher in numeracy than their counterparts in only two countries: Poland and Spain. Those whose highest level of educational attainment was either less than high school or high school scored lower than their counterparts in almost every other participating country. And, our best-educated millennials — those with a master’s or research degree — only scored higher than their peers in three countries.

The authors assert that especially in the U.S., where many millennials are putting themselves at risk financially to obtain higher education, policymakers and researchers must carefully examine what kinds of postsecondary education and training are leading to increased skills and which are not.

There are a number of very real consequences to ignoring the skill challenges outlined above. The PIAAC results raise deeper social equity concerns, since the gap between our highest and lowest performers is among the largest, which threatens to perpetuate inequalities in the broader society. Societies that display this pervasive inequality are likely to experience adverse consequences, including mistrust in government, decreased civic engagement, increased rates of incarceration, poor health, obesity, addiction and more. Wide disparities in education and skills weaken and erode participation and confidence in our democracy.

“As a country, we need to address the question of whether we can afford (in both a moral and fiscal sense) to write off nearly half of our younger-adult population as not having the skills needed to effectively engage as full and active participants in their own future and that of our nation,” conclude authors Goodman, Sands and Coley. “Skills or knowledge can either feed inequality or be an equalizing force. We must decide.”

Copies of America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future, are available at