by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills
Information and communication technologies (ICT) permeate every aspect of our lives, from how we work, to how we “talk” with friends, to how we participate in political processes. But what are the returns to “digital skills” – the capacity to use digital devices and applications to access and manage information and solve problems – on the labour market? Do they help land a job or earn higher wages?
Our new OECD report, Adults, Computers and Problem Solving: What’s the Problem? provides first-of-its-kind answers to such questions. Based on results from the 2012 Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), the report demonstrates the impact of the ability to use digital devices to solve problems in everyday life and at work on the likelihood of participating in the labour force and on workers’ wages.
Does having greater proficiency in solving problems using digital devices increase chances of participating in the labour force?
The labour force participation rate among adults with the highest levels of skills in solving problems using digital devices (Level 2 or 3 in the 2012 survey) was 6 percentage points higher than that among adults with the lowest level of proficiency in those skills (below Level 1), on average across participating countries. At Level 2 or 3 adults can complete tasks like evaluating search-engine results against a set of criteria, solving a scheduling problem by combining information from an Internet application and several e-mail messages, and transforming information in an e-mail message into a spreadsheet and performing computations with it.
In turn, adults with the lowest level (below Level 1) of proficiency in solving problems using digital devices and applications had a higher rate of labour force participation – 15 percentage points higher – than adults who had no experience in using digital devices at all, even after accounting for various factors like age, gender, level of education, proficiency in literacy and use of e-mail in everyday life. Those adults can still type, manipulate a mouse, drag and drop content, and highlight text, but they have very little capacity in using these skills to solve common problems encountered when working in digital environments, such as browsing the web for information. Clearly, the labour market advantage of having even basic digital skills is huge.
What about the chances of earning higher wages?
Workers who have no experience in using digital devices earn 6% less per hour, on average, than those who perform at the lowest level in solving problems using digital applications, even after accounting for factors such as age, gender, educational attainment, proficiency in literacy and numeracy, use of e-mail at work, and occupation. So workers with no experience in using digital devices and applications suffer a serious wage penalty. Just over 9% of adults reported that they never use digital devices, such as computers or tablets. This ranged from around 2% in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, to over 15% in Italy, Korea, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Spain.
In contrast, 26% of the wage premium associated with workers who are the most proficient at problem solving using digital applications, compared with those who are the least proficient, disappears when those factors are taken into account. In other words, the wage premium associated with the highest level of proficiency is largely due to other factors, such as workers’ educational attainment, proficiency in literacy and numeracy, and the use of e-mail at work, rather than their greater proficiency in solving problems in digital environments.
Does it matter how often these skills are used at work?
It seems that frequent use of digital applications in the workplace also pays off. The labour force participation rate among workers who use e-mail frequently in their jobs, for example, was nearly 6 percentage points higher, and these workers earned 9% more per hour, on average, than workers who are equally proficient in literacy, numeracy and problem solving using digital technologies, but who rarely use e-mail. So, digital skills must be put to frequent use in the workplace if they are to make a difference in labour force participation and wages.
Given the findings from our new report, it’s clear that governments, education providers and business need to ensure that all adults have access to digital technologies and networks, and are given opportunities to develop their proficiency in using them. Opting out of this increasingly wired world is no longer a viable option.
Adults, Computers and Problem Solving: What's the Problem?
The Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC)
Adult Skills in Focus No. 1: Does having digital skills really pay off? by William Thorn and Ji Eun Chung
Adult Skills in Focus No. 1: Les compétences numériques : un investissement vraiment rentable? by William Thorn and Ji Eun Chung
Image credit: © OECD