Boosting Adult Educational Skills Can Grow the Middle Class

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from The Center for American Progress,

A new OECD report provides a strong and clear call to protect America’s global standing through investments in education because boosting the basic skill level of Americans will improve their employability in the global economy, thus strengthening the middle class.

An educated workforce is one of the bedrocks of not only the American middle class but also the U.S. economy as a whole. Our economy is the most productive in the world because of the investments workers make in their own skills and civil society makes in education. However, a new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, finds that we are failing to ensure that adults keep pace with the increasing need for basic and advanced skills that today’s middle-class jobs demand. The report’s findings suggest that other nations are doing a better job of equipping all citizens with the skills to be productive, while the United States has stagnated. In order to address these challenges, the report provides policy recommendations to improve our nation’s performance, a few of which we highlight here.

The report’s primary recommendations are to improve basic skills, literacy, numeracy, and problem solving, as well as tackle inequalities affecting particular subpopulations in the United States, which have broad implications for American families and the economy. From a competitiveness point of view, the need to invest in our human capital is urgent. While other countries have made gains in education, the United States has stagnated and is therefore falling behind many other OECD countries. Increasingly, younger Americans find themselves at a skills deficit relative to their counterparts in other countries, and U.S. businesses have more difficulty finding the skilled workers they need to compete in the global economy. The result is fewer high-quality jobs created in the United States. The OECD report calls on the United States to act boldly and to address these challenges through “concerted action.”

Here at the Center for American Progress, we have made a sustained effort to demonstrate that a strong middle class is a driver of economic growth, and this skills gap demonstrates an even more pressing concern for our proposals to grow the middle class. The basic skills that the OECD report focuses on are associated with a significant wage premium; boosting those skill levels is one of the most important actions we can take to improve the economic situation of families that are struggling to get in and stay in the middle class.

The OECD report points out that it’s not a lack of work that’s keeping these families from reaching the middle class; in fact, 63 percent of low-skilled adults in the United States already have a job. Upgrading the skills of these workers is worthwhile because investments in their education benefit not only individuals and their families but also their employers and society collectively. Better-educated workers are more productive, have more stable families and incomes, and provide their families with greater opportunities to remain in the middle class. These middle-class workers fuel America’s economic growth by supporting their families, communities, and, ultimately, American businesses.

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