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Workplace learning depends on what we learned in school

| Text: Gunhild Walin

Our capacity to learn at work is to a large degree dependent on what we have learned in school, and working life cannot fully compensate for differences in formal schooling. That is according to a new Nordic survey which builds on the OECD’s large skills survey PIAAC. Many women in a gender segregated labour market are even loosing their numeracy skills.

“No other countries in the world put so much into workplace learning as the Nordics, but there is a gap between good intentions and results. This education does not, however, have much impact on the skills measured in PIAAC. You can clearly learn other things than the ones that are measured in this survey, but if we believe literacy, numeracy and problem solving is important we need to think about how to maintain these skills,” says Erik Mellander, Associate Professor at the Institute for Evaluation of Labour Market and Education Policy, IFAU. He is also one of the Swedish participants in the Nordic cooperation on the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, PIAAC. 

PIAAC is one of the largest and most expensive knowledge surveys ever conducted. It was introduced by the OECD in 2013 and uses interviews with 166,000 people aged 16 to 65 across 23 OECD countries. The age spread allows the survey to demonstrate how school gives us skills for working life and how those skills are developed during our working years. 

The Nordic PIAAC survey is carried out by a network of researchers from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Norway and Sweden in order to compare and learn from each other. The material is obtained form data collected though the main PIAAC survey.

“If the Pisa survey shows that children learn what they should be learning in school, the PIAAC survey shows whether we are gaining sufficient knowledge to manage after school and how those basic skills are developed in working life. That is what is interesting with this survey — it focuses on working life. We also see that our capacity to learn on the job is to a large extent dependent on what you learned in school,” says Erik 

A skills infrastructure

Computers have been used for the first time for this kind of survey, which has also provided information on how commonly used computers are in every day life. Sweden comes out top out of all the 24 countries in the main PIAAC survey, closely followed by Finland, Norway and Denmark. Japan, however, which is top for both literacy and numeracy, does less well when it comes to problem solving, leaving the country just above the OECD average.

“The fact that Japan has fewer computer users could have influenced their capacity for problem solving. Sweden has focused a lot on ICT and it makes up an important part of the knowledge infrastructure,” says Erik Mellander.

Trust and health is about knowledge

The PIAAC survey focuses on our literacy and numeracy skills and our problem solving skills using a computer.

The three skills areas are collectively called “basic skills” and there is a strong correlation between them; if you are good in one area, you are often also good in the other two. 

The Nordic survey also shows that these skills, or the lack of them, are central to how we manage in working life, to our salary levels and to how socially included we feel. Those who have good skills across the three areas are more positive to their own health than the ones with poorer results. They are more inclined to participate in voluntary work and they feel greater social trust towards other people. Estonia is the exception, and stands out from the other four countries in the survey. The country scores lower on social trust, voluntary work and a belief in being able to influence society, even among groups with good basic skills.

“The basic skills can be seen as a basis for nearly all other skills. They are not enough in themselves, but having them makes it easier to learn other things,” says Erik Mellander.

Finland, Norway and Sweden are all above average when it comes to the three skills. Denmark does well in numeracy and problem solving, but ends up slightly below average in literacy. Estonia is above average in literacy and numeracy, but below average when it comes to problem solving using computers.

Complicated connections

The countries might be doing well on an international scale, but there are major differences between them. The most important factors dividing the population into groups according to their skills are education, age and immigrant status. Unsurprisingly, higher education means better literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills. At the same time the problem is complex. It could be that those who find studying easy more often go into higher education, just like people with good skills across the three areas are more likely to find work where these skills are needed. Age is important for how the three skill sets develop, and they already start deteriorating when people turn 30.  

The reasons why could be more complex than they seem, however. Changes to education systems, like a longer basic education, means young people have been studying more than older people, and older people’s scores are less good. Another explanation could be that both employers’ and older workers’ motivation for further education falls as people age.

“If you look at average skills compared to age categories it looks more dramatic than it really is. You risk worrying unnecessarily and explaining everything in terms of people’s age, while ignoring many of the other factors which play a part, for instance the chance to acquire different skills over time,” says Erik Mellander.

Basic skills tend to be lower among people of foreign heritage. Language appears to be of great importance. The longer you have been living in a country, the better your skills. Results from Denmark show that children’s skills also improve if the host country’s language is spoken at home. All the survey participants have answered the questions in their home country’s language, except in Finland where answers could be given in both Finnish and Swedish. Russian speaking people in Estonia were also allowed to use Russian in the PIAAC survey. They also scored better than other immigrants, which indicates that language difficulties can explain much of the differences in scores between immigrants and the native born. 

Those who have get more

The basic skills also seem to be self-sustaining. People who have them often get better jobs with more opportunities for self-development which in turn improves the basic skills. Permanent long term jobs, major employers and full time jobs lead to better PIAAC scores, while unemployment, part-time employment or self employment lead to poorer results.

“Good basic skills are to a certain degree dependent on social class. Your parents’ education plays a major part, as does where you come from. At the same time educational policies are made not to take these factors for granted, but to create equality when it comes to the chance to get an education,” says Erik Mellander.

Learning in Finnish working life

One country stands out in terms of workplace learning, and that is Finland, explains Erik Mellander. They come out top both in literacy and numeracy, and the results stay high as people get older. If you want to learn more and can choose between one year’s education or learning the same skill by practical work, one year’s education in most countries equals between two to five years of workplace learning. In Finland one year’s education equals only one and a half years of workplace learning for certain age groups.

“They score better, just like in the youth survey. It simply seems to be more rewarding to work in Finland when it comes to workplace learning than in the other Nordic countries,” says Erik Mellander. 

Something else which surprised him was how adult women’s numeracy skills are lower than men’s, while literacy skills are more or less equal between the sexes, according to PIAAC. The Pisa survey, however, shows young girls read better than young boys in school. PIAAC shows that women loose that advantage in working life. 

“The differences in numeracy skills can probably be explained with how women and men choose different occupations, but different work tasks and later developments play a part too,” says Erik Mellander.

Encouraging those not used to studying

The ground for literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills is prepared in school, and is therefore a political responsibility regardless of who does it,” says Erik Mellander. At the same time school is but a small part of life compared to working life. 

“So it is important to create good conditions in working life for maintaining skills, and for being able to keep developing those skills. The Nordic countries, with the exception of Estonia, have good collective agreement systems where the parties already have done much to create learning or to provide help for people who need to develop during times of change. Yet politicians also need to contribute by creating good opportunities for workplace development, allowing employers to feel they can afford to provide further education,” he says. 

One major challenge is to motivate those who have bad experiences from school to dare take part in further education.

“I would say it is a core task to create opportunities for further education in working life for those who are not used to studying, and to maintain or develop the basic skills,” says Erik Mellander. 


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