New report: Americans rank last in problem solving using technology

The Wall Street Journal reports on a new analysis of problem solving skills.


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.

[…]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.

Why is that a problem? It’s a problem because the best jobs all require proficiency in math.

Consider these starting salaries and mid-career salaries for various majors:

Starting and Mid-Career salaries by profession (click for larger image)
Starting and Mid-Career salaries by profession (click for larger image)


The common denominator in all these degrees is mathematics, which is out of favor with many Americans. But clearly learning math would enable them to get the highest paying jobs – private sector STEM jobs. So why aren’t they learning math?

People drop math because it’s too hard

People who drop math typically do so because they want to focus on other things that are less difficult. Most of them just want to have fun… sometimes with watching TV all day, sometimes with premarital sex, sometimes with alcohol and drugs. Families break down as women choose hot, irresponsible men and have babies with them out of wedlock. And those kids learn less than their parents knew. There just isn’t any interest in much of America about learning hard things like math, so you can get those private sector STEM jobs that pay well.

Consider this post by Kevin Williamson in National Review magazine:

The white middle class may like the idea of Trump as a giant pulsing humanoid middle finger held up in the face of the Cathedral, they may sing hymns to Trump the destroyer and whisper darkly about “globalists” and — odious, stupid term — “the Establishment,” but nobody did this to them. They failed themselves.

If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that.

Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

Trump vs Hillary head-to-head: No Trumpkin can make sense of this chart
Trump vs Hillary head-to-head: Trumpkins lack the math skills to make sense of this table

David French, who grew up in Kentucky, and then attended Harvard Law School, adds this in National Review:

These are strong words, but they are fundamentally true and important to say. My childhood was different from Kevin’s, but I grew up in Kentucky, live in a rural county in Tennessee, and have seen the challenges of the white working-class first-hand. Simply put, Americans are killing themselves and destroying their families at an alarming rate. No one is making them do it. The economy isn’t putting a bottle in their hand. Immigrants aren’t making them cheat on their wives or snort OxyContin. Obama isn’t walking them into the lawyer’s office to force them to file a bogus disability claim.

For generations, conservatives have rightly railed against deterministic progressive notions that put human choices at the mercy of race, class, history, or economics. Those factors can create additional challenges, but they do not relieve any human being of the moral obligation to do their best.

Yet millions of Americans aren’t doing their best. Indeed, they’re barely trying. As I’ve related before, my church in Kentucky made a determined attempt to reach kids and families that were falling between the cracks, and it was consistently astounding how little effort most parents and their teen children made to improve their lives. If they couldn’t find a job in a few days — or perhaps even as little as a few hours — they’d stop looking. If they got angry at teachers or coaches, they’d drop out of school. If they fought with their wife, they had sex with a neighbor. And always — always — there was a sense of entitlement.

And that’s where disability or other government programs kicked in. They were there, beckoning, giving men and women alternatives to gainful employment. You don’t have to do any work (your disability lawyer does all the heavy lifting), you make money, and you get drugs. At our local regional hospital, it’s become a bitter joke the extent to which the community is hooked on “Xanatab” — the Xanax and Lortab prescriptions that lead to drug dependence.

Of course we should have compassion even as we call on people to do better. I have compassion for kids who often see the worst behavior modeled at home. I have compassion for families facing economic uncertainty. But compassion can’t excuse or enable self-destructive moral failures.

Chart showing Trump vs Clinton: Trumpkins can't read this
Chart showing Trump vs Clinton: Trumpkins can’t read this chart, because it requires math skills

I have compassion for the kids, too. But not for the grown-ups, who seem to think that the world owes them a living even if they avoid learning hard things like math, and behave immorally. But there is no guarantee of success for people who don’t learn math, and who don’t behave morally. And it’s not anyone else’s fault.

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7 thoughts on “New report: Americans rank last in problem solving using technology”

  1. I’m not convinced that all poverty is the result of the moral failings of the poor, which the pieces you quote come very close to suggesting.

    My guess is that there are plenty of people out there trained in the oil industry (to use your example of the best paying job) who have been put out of work recently and who are going to find it difficult to get other jobs. Oil today is in the position that manufacturing was in 20 years ago; an unexpected downturn where there had previously usually been plenty of work.

    If the current trajectories continue plenty of STEM jobs could easily be replaced with machines or just outsourced abroad.

    It seems to be a simple economic fact that there won’t be jobs for everyone in the future. Maybe learning maths will give a competitive advantage to the individuals concerned, but if everyone does it then it ceases to have any economic worth.

    God doesn’t promise us utopia. While I believe that capitalism is the only viable economic system, it won’t solve poverty nor will it create a meritocracy, where only those who behave badly will be poor.

  2. “…which means that they need U-Haul.”

    Move where for a job? Everyone that moved to North Dakota or Texas to work shale or fracking in the last 4 years has already been laid off! Zerohedge documents that most of the jobs created since the recovery in 2009 are either part time, janitors, or bartenders.

    The white middle class and “underclass” did not ask for NAFTA and WTO to China. They did not ask for or vote for $12.5 Trillion to be given to Wall Street in 2008. It is not the their fault that feminism, Hollywood, Big Porn, and TV have conspired to wreck the family. It is not their fault that US Presidents refuse to seal the Southern Border against the drug trade. They did not ask for H1-B and H2-B visa’s to steal their jobs and bust their unions. They did not ask for Barack Obama to intentionally put coal mining companies into bankruptcy, at least 6 large bankruptcies in the last year!

    I flew to Phoenix for work. I shared a van ride from the airport with an retired couple that had a daughter that was an attorney for Motorola. They bragged about her job, she processed forms for Motorola to get H1-B’s into the country. They also told me that American Express used H1-B’s to bring math majors in to do their internal risk management calculations.

    H1-B’s are a self-fulfilling prophecy. An American citizen with a BS or MS in math will decline to go get a PhD because his advisor will tell him there are no jobs in math except teaching. There are no jobs because Motorola, Microsoft, Oracle, and American Express are bringing in H1-B’s. Disney is another recent example of H1-B abuse.

    Ted Cruz voted to increase H2-B’s by 400%. Those are blue collar jobs that Williamson and French should be doing.

    Williamson and French are OUT OF TOUCH because NAFTA, H1-B’s, and illegal immigrants do not take jobs from Conservative Reporters/Columnists.

    H1-B’s and H2-B’s are a scam. They are union busting, wage busting. Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and most Democrats support them.

    Not everyone has the aptitude for math. Maybe 20% of the world’s population has the aptitude.

    1. Couldn’t say it better myself. I’ll just add:

      Maybe 20% of the population has an aptitude for advanced school. Like college. I’ve worked in office settings where younger people in their 20s and early 30s a few years out of college could not put two or three coherent sentences together in a damn email.

      Look at the bell curve. Most people are not qualified to go to college, yet we keep shoving them in there.

      Better, I think, to try to bring back some good manufacturing jobs and/or infrastructure projects so that men can provide for themselves and their families.

      1. IMHO, people aren’t ready for college because the public school system no longer makes failing students repeat classes. They are just passed through the system w/ no consequences. The schools would rather “graduate” a student who is not prepared than have a large dropout % rate.

  3. Talking jobs,

    1st about 1/3 of the US workforce is from cultures that have poor cognitive skills and little interest in learning. This isn’t an HDB blog so I’ll pass on speculating how much the education system can correct this and how much in genetic but right now the education system can’t produce thinkers. Worse much of the college system is basically Marxist without even the benefits of Soviet engineering as well . The exodus of men from universities is just getting started and women will not and cannot fill the gap. Worse if they do, they won’t have as many children and as such, you make your population less educated and dumber

    2nd, few American businesses actually want or need problem solvers. US society is kind of imploding and very desperate to maintain the status quo. Disruption is not wanted and while there are some areas that do want it, DARPA and the like, its a tiny fraction of the economy.

    3rd $30 an hour isn’t very much money in areas where these jobs can be had and considering how hard it is to get an engineering degree and because of the ease of outsourcing and the H1B visa program, there is virtually no job security. This tends to deter the people who would be good at the job but can do other things. Its not worth the debt

    Basically without much heavier regulation of trade and the work place along with changed incentives to favor wages over efficiency , the natural tendency of the US to slump to mediocrity or to fall apart is inevitable.

    This is not a bad thing, the US won’t be able to cause international trouble and in such societies both religion and family do better anyway. Long term as the US moves to a “Catholic” work ethic as vs. a Protestant one, we’ll get poorer but probably happier.

  4. I remember seeing a vid with Michio Kaku explaining that if the US banned foreign workers the scientific infrastructure would collapse because the US does not graduate enough Ph.Ds to fill the needed jobs.

    1. I have read that also. I believe that is propaganda from the wage busting Tech CEO’s and Chamber of Commerce crowd.

      Some of this is self-fulfilling prophecy; native born Americans don’t get PhD’s because they are told there are no jobs for them. Or they are told unless they are a female or a minority they won’t get a job with a PhD.

      Britain was the world technology leader in the 19th Century (steam power, railroads, long span bridges, canals, modern steel making, machine tools, standardized bolts, large spinning and weaving machines, etc.). They built and maintained that without foreign workers.

      Japan has built and maintained their technology without foreign workers.

      A history of H1-B’s and Microsoft’s wage busting involvement:

      Norm Matloff is a Computer Science professor and he states there is no shortage of tech workers:

      The average worker in America now makes the same amount as his father or grandfather when you account for inflation – no wage growth for the last 45 years.

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