Americans Not Tech Savvy
Even if it was the Americans who have given birth to the Internet, it does not mean that they are also good at using technology to solve problems.

A new report finds U.S. workers rank dead last among 18 industrial countries when it comes to "problem solving in technology-rich environments," or using digital technology to evaluate information and perform practical tasks. The consequences of that emerging competitive disadvantage is energizing the volatile undercurrent of this year’s presidential race, some observers say.

If the problem-solving deficit is bad, the reasons for it may be worse, said Stephen Provasnik, the U.S. technical adviser for the International Assessment for Adult Competency: flagging literacy and numeracy skills, which are the fundamental tools needed to score well on the survey.

"When you look at this data it suggests the trends we’ve discerned over the last 20 years are continuing and if anything they are gaining momentum," said Joseph Fuller, a Harvard Business School professor who studies competitiveness.

The results build off a global survey conducted in 2012 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. To better compare the skills of younger and older adults and the unemployed, researchers did additional surveys in 2014. The countries that scored the highest on the problem-solving with technology criteria were Japan, Finland, Sweden and Norway. Poland scored second to last, just above the U.S.

One stark revelation is that about four-fifths of unemployed Americans cannot figure out a rudimentary problem in which they have to spot an error when data is transferred from a two-column spreadsheet to a bar graph. And Americans are far less adept at dealing with numbers than the average of their global peers.

"This is the only country in the world where it’s OK to say 'I'm not good at math,'" said Mr. Provasnik. "That’s just not acceptable in a place like Japan."

When the original study by the OECD was published in 2013, then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan didn’t pull his punches. "These findings should concern us all," he said. "They show our education system hasn't done enough to help Americans compete—or position our country to lead—in a global economy that demands increasingly higher skills."

Americans with the most cerebral jobs—those that demanded high levels of literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills—fared the best against the rest of the world in the earlier tests. The potential problem lies in the growing complexity of traditional middle-class jobs in fields like manufacturing and health care. Workers unable to grow in those jobs will lose their positions or face stagnant wages.

The new report does nothing to dispel that gloom. Data on 16- to 34-year-olds, for instance, found even workers with college degrees and graduate or professional degrees don’t stack up favorably against their international peers with similar education levels. Fewer of these most-educated Americans perform at the highest levels on tests of numeracy and problem solving with technology.

"Just because you're a digital native, doesn’t mean you're tech savvy," said Linda Rosen, chief executive of Change the Equation, a privately funded nonprofit that advocates for technological literacy in schools.Marc Tuck, president and CEO of the National Center for Education and the Economy, a not-for-profit educational research organization, says the U.S.’s weak standing in labor skills shown in the report offer a blueprint to understanding the current political climate.

"American workers, once the best educated in the world, are now among the least well-educated, in the industrialized world," Mr. Tuck said in a statement. "That has economic consequences and those economic consequences are now turning into political consequences" as voters head to the polls this presidential election year.

In the 1970s, the U.S. had the most educated workforce in the world. Since 2000, the skills and knowledge of U.S. high-school graduates have stagnated while those of other countries have increased rapidly. That failure to adapt means global employers can get cheaper, better educated labor in many other countries.

"The only way we can compete and live well in this country is if people in other parts of the world want what we have to sell them and we can only get there if we have a population that is very well educated and well trained," Mr. Tucker said. "If people with the same skills are willing to work harder and charge less, that’s where the jobs are going to go."