10/11/2013 11:11 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Lifelong Learning Is the Key to Competitiveness

The results of the OECD Survey of Adult Skills are out, and the results are pretty depressing. The survey evaluated the information-processing skills of adults in 24 of the world's richest countries. The target skills were literacy (the ability to understand and interact meaningfully with written texts), numeracy (the ability to use and interpret mathematical information), and problem solving in technology-rich environments (the ability to use digital technologies to perform tasks). With the growth of computers, the Internet, and other digital technologies, these are considered the key "generic" skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century and make a country economically competitive.

Despite having some of the most highly educated people in the sample, U.S. adults didn't make the grade in any category. The U.S. ranked just below average in literacy and quite a bit below average in both numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments. These results are particularly discouraging because, as the study revealed, using skills in the workplace are necessary for high levels of productivity and earnings.

The U.S. has lived a fairly charmed existence. For most of the 20th century, we were far ahead the rest of the world because of our comparatively highly educated labor force and most of the rest of the world, including our current competitors, was very poor. But with recent advances in technology and world economic growth in the last half century, that divide has narrowed considerably. As a result, the U.S. is facing much stiffer competition today.

However, it's important to point that no country is exclusively composed of highly skilled, highly educated workers or just low skilled ones. In all countries, a significant portion, 1 in 10 of all adults, were below Level 1 in basic skills. Why was there such a gap? The size of the gap between high performing and low performing adults was associated with whether adults learned new skills across their lifetime. When policies were in place that fostered lifelong learning, the gap between the highest and lowest performing adults narrowed. The OECD study also found that informal learning outside the workplace mattered as much as formal learning in the classroom or office setting.

The picture that comes out of the data, at least for Americans, is twofold:

1. Getting a formal education, especially at a young age, is necessary, but not sufficient for developing proficiency in the areas of numeracy, problem solving with technology, and literacy.

2. Learning outside the classroom, including work experience, adult education, and especially the activities engaged in outside of work, is just as essential as skills maintenance.

For individuals looking to succeed in the current digital climate, the lesson is clear: get an education. But an education doesn't stop with a college degree. For the US to remain competitive, it will have to develop policies that support adult education as well. Americans themselves will also have to embrace a practice constant learning. This may include enrolling in a continuing education course at a local university or community college, taking a course online with a MOOC provider, learning a new language, or read more books--just keep learning. Everything counts. This is the only way to make sure the U.S. does not fall further behind the rest of the world.