Skills aren’t what they used to be -Interview with Andreas Schleicher

Background ”PIAAC” stands for Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies. Its nickname “PISA for adults” perhaps captures better the programme’s essence.With PIAAC, the OECD aims to carry out the largest assessment of adults’ workplace skills ever attempted in industrialised countries. PIAAC’s foremost spokesman Andreas Schleicher explains to LLinE why PIAAC may change the



”PIAAC” stands for Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies. Its nickname “PISA for adults” perhaps captures better the programme’s essence.With PIAAC, the OECD aims to carry out the largest assessment of adults’ workplace skills ever attempted in industrialised countries. PIAAC’s foremost spokesman Andreas Schleicher explains to LLinE why PIAAC may change the way we think about qualifications – and whether his own physics degree is still an asset.


The OECD’s PIAAC survey is in its data-gathering phase currently, with first results expected in October 2013. The survey is administered in 23 countries, among them the UK, United States, Nordic countries and Japan.

PIAAC departs from the notion that the global economy and the information age require new skills from the workforce. The biggest question is: do our workforces have up-to-date skill sets to compete in today’s globalized economy? The results may have wide-ranging consequences for policy and education planning in the participating countries.

The programme’s aim is to produce comparable information about adults’ skill levels. The study especially focuses on “literacy in the information age”, meaning adults’ abilities to use digital technology. Key work skills are also evaluated.

Andreas Schleicher is Deputy Director for Education and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary-General. Originally from Germany, Schleicher’s background is in physics and statistics. At the OECD he coordinates both PIAAC and PISA. In his home country he is known for his criticism towards the German educational system.

Photo: OECD


LLinE: PIAAC promises to be a new way of measuring human capital. Which new skills are measured in PIAAC that haven’t featured in earlier surveys?

Andreas Schleicher: PIAAC will offer a much more nuanced picture of the talent pool of nations.
Even the domains which the survey shares with past assessments – literacy or numeracy – have been redefined, as the very nature of those skills has changed. For example, in the past, literacy was mainly about learning to read, a set of technical skills that individuals would acquire once for a lifetime in order to process an established body of coded knowledge.

Today, literacy is about reading for learning, the capacity and motivation to identify, understand, interpret and create and communicate knowledge. It also involves dealing with ambiguity, interpreting conflicting pieces of information.

The survey will help explain more about the characteristics of adults with both low and high level of skills. For high performers, it will show to what extent they are able to apply their cognitive skills to solve challenging problems requiring mastery of technology. For those with low literacy, it will show to what extent their problem is with performing basic reading functions or with understanding and application.

But beyond the direct measurement of skills, the survey provides new ways to assess the impact of knowledge and skills on individual outcomes such as integration into the labour market, employment status and earnings, participation in further learning.
Last but not least, it provides innovative measures on the ways in which individuals utilise their skills.

LLinE: Which skills will be the most central for employability and economic competitiveness in the next twenty years?

AS: State-of-the-art subject matter knowledge will always remain important. However, educational success is no longer mainly about reproducing content knowledge, but about extrapolating from what we know and applying that knowledge in novel situations.

The world is also no longer divided into specialists and generalists. Specialists have deep skills and narrow scope, giving them expertise that is recognized by peers but not valued outside their domain. Generalists have broad scope but shallow skills. But what counts more and more are the versatilists who are able to apply depth of skill to a progressively widening scope of situations and experiences, gaining new competencies, building relationships, and assuming new roles.

Innovation today is rarely the product of individuals working in isolation but an outcome of how we mobilize, share and link knowledge. In today’s world, everything that is our own proprietary knowledge today will be a commodity available to everyone else tomorrow. In other words, we are seeing a shift from a world of stocks – with knowledge that is stacked up somewhere depreciating rapidly in value – to a world in which the enriching power of communication and collaborative flows is increasing.

LLinE: What are the “key workplace skills” that PIAAC documents aim to measure?

AS: Those of the above that we have been able to make amenable to quantitative large scale assessment, namely literacy, numeracy and problem-solving in technology-rich environments, but also the larger set of skills for which we inquire about their use.

LLinE: On the basis of the 2010 PIAAC field trial or your hypotheses, which will be the most effective ways to learn these most crucial skills?

AS: One aspect the field trial data suggests is that skill development is far more effective if the world of learning and the world of work are integrated. The growth curve among youth between the ages of 16 and 25 is far steeper for those who combine education and work than for those who are just in education. Learning in the workplace allows young people to develop “hard” skills on modern equipment, and “soft” skills, such as teamwork, communication and negotiation. Hands-on workplace training may also help to motivate disengaged youth to re-engage with education and smoothen the transition to work.

LLinE: In earlier interviews You have said that skills should not be confused with formal qualifications and that qualifications will not guarantee employability. What will the job market and recruitment look like in the future? Will formal qualification requirements gradually disappear?

AS: I think we will become better and better at measuring and recognising the skills that people actually have. To some extent, then, people’s earlier qualifications will lose in importance.

Take me as an example. I am a physics graduate, but if you put me in a laboratory today, many years after I received my degree and moved into another field of work, I will probably not do as good a job as my degree suggests, because the field has advanced since I received my degree and because I have forgotten many things that I never practiced. In turn, I have learned lots of new things that are relevant for my work today, but not measured in my degree, such as designing and managing surveys like PIAAC.

LLinE: Can the PIAAC survey see that there might be a demand for making skills from non-formal and in-formal learning more visible?

AS: Yes, we need to become much better in putting the premium on skills-oriented learning throughout life instead of qualifications-focused education upfront.
But there is a wider range of issues here that are relevant. Quality career guidance is essential: people who have the latest labour market information can help steer individuals to the education that would best prepare them for their prospective careers. Coherent and easy-to-understand qualifications are important to help employers identify potential employees who are suitable for the jobs they offer. Imagine you are highly skilled but nobody knows about this!

Reducing the costs of moving within a country can help employees to find the jobs that match their skills and help employers to find the skills that match their jobs.
Helping employers make better use of their talents is an obvious angle as well. There may be young people just starting out, who are well educated but have trouble finding jobs that put their education and training to good use. Here we can shape the demand for skills. Often we think this is all a zero-sum game, that is the demand for skills is as it is and we just need to educate people to meet existing demand. That is a big mistake. There is much that governments and employers can to do promote knowledge-intensive industries and jobs that require high-skilled workers. Adding these kinds of high value-added jobs to a labour market helps to get more people working—and for better pay.

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