We have a problem on low skills and we need to talk about it

Posted on May 09, 2014 by Tom Healy

Tom Healy, Director NERI
Tom Healy, Director NERI

Have you difficulties reading and understanding your telephone bill? How will you fare on the forthcoming Water charges bill if you live in the Republic of Ireland? Today, on the island of Ireland, there are approximately one million adults with serious challenges in relation to reading and the understanding of text including interpretation of numerical information. According to the latest adult skill survey conducted by OECD in 24 countries/regions in 2012, 25% of adults in the Republic of Ireland and 24% of adults in Northern Ireland showed significant difficulties in relation to numeracy.

The Survey is called the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) and its aim is to assess and quantify ‘literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments’. PIAAC was carried out in 2011/12, in the Republic (ROI), by the Central Statistics Office and, in the North (NI), by the UK National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) in partnership with the statistics agency NISRA. The Survey covered 6,000 adults between the ages of 16 and 65 in the Republic and 3,800 in NI. (Response rates of 72 and 65% were achieved in the Republic and Northern Ireland, respectively). The main OECD report (466 pages!) is available here. The Central Statistics Office produced a national report  and is available here while the Department for Employment and Learning released a special NI PIAAC report here. The Department of Education and Skills in the Republic produced its own Information Note here.

The results showed that 25 and 24%, respectively, of adults in the Republic and Northern Ireland performed at or below ‘level 1’ (the lowest level) in the Numeracy test. The difference between North and South is not ‘statistically significant’ (it could have occurred by statistical sampling chance). Likewise, differences between Northern Ireland and England were not significant. However, adults in both jurisdictions performed well below the international PIAAC average. The corresponding average for the lowest level OECD countries/regions taking part in PIAAC was 20%.

Numeracy is defined by the OECD as ‘the ability to use, apply, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas’. Adults are assessed on this and other skills (literacy and problem-solving being the others) and assessed on a five level scale from 1 to 5 (5 being the highest). The Survey was carried out in people’s homes and was administered, typically, by the national statistical office or a similar public agency.

The picture in regards to literacy (reading text or prose) skills in 2012 is better. Both the Republic and Northern Ireland show results closer to the country/region average for PIAAC (18% of adult at or below ‘Level 1’ in the Republic and 20% in the case of Northern Ireland compared to a PIAAC/OECD average of 17%).

The main OECD study (see Figure 2.3a on page 72) draws attention to a particularly poor performance on literacy in the 16-24 age group both in the Republic and Northern Ireland. This finding, while of concern, is hard to reconcile with the similar but different OECD PISA study of 16 year olds which is conducted every three years.

The OECD commented:

“In England/Northern Ireland (UK) and the United States, improvements between younger and older generations are barely apparent. Young people in these countries are entering a much more demanding labour market, yet they are not much better prepared than those who are retiring.” (page 31 of main study)

“England/Northern Ireland (UK) is among the bottom three countries when comparing literacy proficiency among 16‑24 year‑olds.” (page 31)

“Only in England/Northern Ireland (UK) do adults aged 55-65 score about the same as 16-24 year-olds.” (page 106)

While caution is needed in comparing ‘problem solving in technology-rich environments’ as assessed in PIAAC, Northern Ireland appears to have the lowest level of skill out of 20 countries/regions compared.  The domain assessed the respondent’s ability on laptop computer to use a number of common computer applications (e.g. email, spreadsheets, word processing, internet browser) to complete various tasks. The tasks ranged in complexity from answering emails to buying tickets using an online booking system given certain criteria and restrictions.  Over 50% of adults were at or below ‘Level 1’ under this heading compared to 42% in the Republic and 41% on average for PIAAC/OECD countries/regions compared. 

A similar survey was carried out in the Republic of Ireland in 1994 and showed a higher rate of Level 1 (or below) literacy there (22%) compared to 18% in 2012. While the improvement is welcome it is hardly surprising given the passage of time and the replacement of older adults by more highly educated adults who tend to have, on average, higher skill levels. The improvement in ‘mean score’ between 1994 and 2012, in the case of the Republic, was not ‘statistically significant’. However, the increase between 1996 and 2012, in the case of NI, was significant.

What implications flow from PIAAC? It is useful to view the question of skills – especially in a workplace context – along with the question of earnings, training and productivity. The bulk of workforce works in small and medium-sized enterprises – mostly domestically owned - in both jurisdictions. On any measure of productivity it is clear that many of these enterprises show relatively low productivity compared to the higher-technological multi-national sector (although productivity is likely to be exaggerated in the latter case by profit-booking and price-transferring practices). 

Clearly, on the basis of this fairly robust but limited measure of some dimensions of adult skills there is a deficit in the workplace. Typically work-related training whether on-the-job or off-the-job is skewed towards with higher levels of skills or educational attainment. Various studies including the latest PIAAC one confirm this and both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are no exception. It appears that, in the absence of proactive training initiatives by public authorities, training will gravitate away from those with the greatest need. To counter this type of market failure a coherent and comprehensive strategy on skills and training is needed which reaches a sufficient number of adults.  In 2012 in Northern Ireland, 12% of adults with ‘Below Level 1’ literacy participated in job-related training compared to 63% in the case of those at ‘Level 4 or 5’. The corresponding figures for the Republic of Ireland were 14 and 64% (Table A5.7 on page 380)

I leave the final word to the OECD:

“Low-skilled adults risk getting trapped in a situation in which they rarely benefit from adult learning, and their skills remain weak or deteriorate over time – which makes it even harder for these individuals to participate in learning activities. This presents a formidable policy challenge for countries such as Canada, England/Northern Ireland (UK), Ireland, Italy, Spain and the United States, where significant shares of adults are at or below Level 1 on the literacy and numeracy scales”. (page 35)



  1. If you are a researcher and enjoy working with huge data sets for free try using the publicly available PIAAC data here. In addition to literacy and numeracy skill measures you can find a host of data on the attributes, earnings, skills and training of workers in the labour force in various OECD countries/regions including Northern Ireland and the Republic (Note the Background Questionnaire for a list of questions asked). You can also find links to earlier surveys carried out in the 1990s.
  2. A few examples of test items under the numeracy test are available here.
  3. You can ‘sit the test’ yourself by going to this link. You don’t have to tell anyone your result!


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