September 2014 (Harvard Business School) – Figure 11 shows that America faces similar challenges in problem-solving and numeracy skills. What were once American advantages in human capital have turned into disadvantages. Relative performance matters in global competition, where American workers must out-produce and out-innovate the world’s best. Vertical axis = % of U.S. adults in top two proficiency categories minus % of all international adults in top two proficiency categories.
Some would argue (and we would agree) that Figure 11 reveals an ethical issue: our society is not fulfilling its promise to children to educate and prepare them. Others would argue (and again we would agree) that the figures point to a political problem: our democracy cannot work well when many citizens are denied the opportunities that strong educations afford. We would add that the figures highlight a fundamental business problem: companies operating in the U.S. cannot succeed without well-educated, highly skilled employees. Moreover, the living standards of most Americans will not rise if their workplace skills lag much of the world’s. The situation captured in the OECD data—and reflected also in the mediocre performance of U.S. students on international tests—does not allow business leaders to sit on the sidelines.