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A 'Disheartening Portrait' of the U.S. Labor Force

American workers have a major skills deficit that varies by race, ethnicity, and nativity.

Migration Policy Institute

English literacy and numeracy skills affect how we process information and use technology—they are keys to better jobs and higher salaries. According to a new report by the Migration Policy Institute, the U.S. workforce scores pretty low on these measures compared to other developed countries, and shows significant disparities among racial groups.

The MPI report examined data from an international survey, conducted by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, that assessed literacy and numeracy skills of adults in 24 member countries. America's average score placed it 16th among this group, far below countries like Japan and Finland. The report also notes that this score barely rose from 2003 to 2012.

U.S. literacy scores are not doing well compared to other member countries of the OECD, most of which are developed. (Migration Policy Institute)

Within the U.S. workforce, there is a gap between the foreign-born and native-born populations, largely due to language barriers. Foreign-born immigrants are overrepresented in the pool of low-skilled workers in America (33 percent), compared with their share in the total U.S. adult population that participated in the survey (15 percent).

Still, the majority of American adults with low literacy and numeracy skills were born in the United States, according to the report.

The comparison between foreign-born and native-born workers shows how some racial groups fare worse than others. White workers—both foreign-born and U.S.-born—show higher levels of literacy. That's partly because white immigrants come from countries where English is either the first or the second language, and their education levels are comparable to those of U.S.-born white workers, says Jeanne Batalova, co-author of the MPI report.

On the other hand, she says, black foreign-born and native-born populations show similar, low levels of literacy, which underscores how social and economic inequality affects the workforce.

Blacks and Hispanics show lower levels of literacy than other groups. (Migration Policy Institute)

Overall, a majority of working-age adults are not proficient in literacy and numeracy, and that's a pretty "disheartening portrait" of the U.S. labor force, says MPI President Michael Fix.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.