“When the German engineering company Siemens Energy opened a gas turbine production plant in Charlotte, N.C., some 10,000 people showed up at a job fair for 800 positions. But fewer than 15 percent of the applicants were able to pass a reading, writing and math screening test geared toward a ninth-grade education.”
This report was published in the New York Times, on January 30, 2017. The message is clear—industries want employees with high cognitive skills, but there is a disparity between the skills employers want and the skills in which students are being trained. With the penetration of information technology and the transformation of industries, the skills gap has become a great challenge for American school leaders.
What cognitive skills do U.S. workers with apprenticeships use frequently?
In our second analysis using the PIAAC data, we found that U.S. workers with apprenticeships spend more time learning at work than their peers without. The former use more reading skills at work, such as frequently reading books, manuals and schematics. In addition, a relatively higher percentage of workers with apprenticeships use advanced math and statistics at work, compared with their peers without.
- Figure 1 shows that individuals with apprenticeships reported using literacy/numeracy skills at work more frequently than those without, but only two indices (learning and reading) show significant difference between the two groups. (left bar chart).
- Approximately 43% of individuals with apprenticeships spent more than 80% of their time at work learning; in contrast, only 29% of those without apprenticeships did so. Approximately 30% of individuals with apprenticeships reported using their reading skills more than 80% of their work time; 24% of those without apprenticeships reported the same (right bar chart).
- Figure 2 (left bar chart) shows the distribution of literacy, numeracy and ICT (information and communication technology) skills used at work among U.S. workers with apprenticeships. More than one half of the population reported that they used the following skills at work frequently:
- Literacy: reading manuals and reference materials (56%), diagrams and schematics (59%), memos and mail (64%), directions and instructions (68%); filling in forms (58%)
- Numeracy: using calculators (53%); calculating fraction and percentage (53%)
- ICT: using Internet for work-related information (78%) and for mail (79%).
- Figure 2 (right bar chart) shows four unique patterns of the use of literacy/numeracy skills at work by individuals with apprenticeships. Our analysis shows that workers with apprenticeships are more likely to use the skills below at work much more than workers without apprenticeships.
- often reading books at work (29% versus 17%)
- often reading manuals and reference materials (56% versus 41%)
- often reading diagrams, maps and schematics (59% versus 31%)
- often using advanced math and statistics (17% versus 6%).
What do our findings suggest?
Skills matter, but in terms of narrowing the skills gap, the continual building of skills may matter more. Compared with their peers who have the same level of literacy/numeracy, individuals with apprenticeships are more likely to spend more time at work reading books, manuals, diagrams and using advanced math in the United States. This finding suggests that the apprenticeship model—career-building and life-long learning through the attainment of stackable credentials—seems to be effective.
For school leaders, partnership with local businesses may be a win-win strategy. Making school more relevant to the job market can help educators to identify literacy and numeracy skills that are mostly needed at the workplace, and modify classroom instruction accordingly. By narrowing the skills gap, the school system would not only help broaden the scope of career choices of students, but would also establish a continual pipeline of high-skilled workers to the job market.