Lack of worker skills threatens European recovery

By Lori Hinnant

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 8 2013 9:32 a.m. MDT

Protesters at Athens university, wearing white masks, shout slogans during a demonstration, in central Athens on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013.

Dimitri Messinis, Associated Press

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PARIS — Andrea Ortiz, a 24-year-old Spaniard, has degrees in law and business and works in a multinational clothing company — as a store clerk. She has little hope of advancement and fears that when finally she secures a job she wants, she'll have no idea how to do it well.

"You arrive in class, they give you a book and they ask you to learn it, that's it. The teachers are very educated and well trained but I think that on many occasions they do not know how to transmit that knowledge," said Ortiz, who sells clothes at Zara's in Madrid. "The day will come when I have to join a company and I won't know the basics of how an office works."

The Spaniard's fears may be well-founded, according to a study released Tuesday that shows many countries in the most dire economic trouble have workforces that lack the skills needed to get the recovery going.

In the first global study of adult skills, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development interviewed 166,000 people across 24 countries and regions — a rich sample of people from all walks of life who agreed to sit down for tests that could last up to 90 minutes. The results from mostly industrialized countries offered a snapshot into how people of different ages are educated, work and adapt to a changing world. It did not include China, India or Brazil, which are among the world's fastest developing countries.

"We're looking at decades of policy. We're looking across generations," said Stefano Scarpetta, the OECD's director for employment labor and social affairs.

Gong Juhui is the same age as Ortiz, but says the education and training she received in her native South Korea have given her a very different outlook. She graduated from a four-year college with a degree in social welfare. With about four hours of computing classes a week, she learned how to make websites and use complex graphics programs and felt confident and well prepared to start work.

Gong's first job, producing fundraising websites, required logic, planning and writing skills — all of which she learned at school and honed at work. She's since jumped to another career path, confident of what the future holds. Her country's 3 percent unemployment rate is among the world's lowest.

Literacy, facility with numbers, and ability to adapt to new technologies are among the strongest indicators of earning power; without those skills, economists say, workers will find themselves unable to compete in a globalized world. And they are skills learned not just in schools but in the workplace and during time off.

Adults in Spain and Italy, two of the countries to suffer the most from the European debt crisis and economic downturn, landed at the bottom of the list for proficiency in math and literacy among 16 to 65 year olds. They also were near the bottom in proportion of working-age adults with a minimal familiarity with computers. Both countries suffer from high unemployment — Spain has a 26.2 percent jobless rate, and over half of workers younger than 25 are without work. Italy's unemployment rate is just over 12 percent, with 40 percent of young people looking for work.

The survey found that about one in four Spanish adults scored at the lowest levels of literacy and one in three at the lowest levels in numeracy. Japanese and Dutch adults who were ages 25 to 34 and only completed high school easily outperformed Italian or Spanish university graduates of the same age. American workers fell well below average in all categories.

"That is the kind of thing that makes me question — what are the longer term prospects of these countries to improve, to really get back at a trajectory of long-term stable growth," said Jacob Kirkegaard, an economist with the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Veronica Martinez, who graduated with an education degree, does market studies for a company and essentially had to learn what she knows on the job.

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