A generation ago, the US had one of the highest levels of high-school and post-secondary attainment in the world. But now, as competing countries have rapidly improved, the US has been left behind and faces a "major skills challenge", a new report warns.
The figures highlighted in the report, published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) last week, are stark.
The US used to educate more of its young people to post-secondary level than almost all other OECD countries. As a result, 40 per cent of older people (aged 55-64 in 2010) have tertiary qualifications (degree or postgraduate). Only two countries, Canada and Israel, performed slightly better.
But other countries have caught up, whereas US figures have barely changed. Forty-two per cent of younger adults in the US (aged 25-34 in 2010) have tertiary qualifications, a figure bettered by 12 other OECD countries.
The report is one of a series being produced by the OECD, each focusing on individual countries. Findings on the situation in the UK are due to be published later this year.
Public expenditure on career and technical education in the US is substantial, at about $50 billion (pound;33 billion), but it is decentralised and costs are highly variable, according to the report.
In emerging economic giants such as China, growth in attainment has been "dramatic" and future workforces are expected to be highly skilled as a result. In contrast, the basic skills of US teens and high-school graduates are weak compared with many other industrialised countries.
This was highlighted by the country's relatively poor showing at the 2013 WorldSkills event, a kind of skills Olympics held in Germany earlier this month. The US team came 30th out of 47 countries on total scores; only Russia performed worse out of the G8 nations.
Simon Bartley, president of WorldSkills International, who recently attended a skills conference in the US, said: "The main talking point among the sponsors, all of whom represented US industry, was the national skills gap and the skills shortage they face.
"A lot of them talked about the `lost decades' of the 1980s and 1990s, when young people in the US were persuaded to go to university rather than into employment or training.
"American industry is working extraordinarily hard to try to change attitudes among young people and encourage more to go into the post- secondary vocational education establishment."
Mr Bartley added that the US had started to take events such as WorldSkills more seriously and realised the need to benchmark its skills performance against other countries.
"However, unlike most developed countries, the drive is coming from industry and not the government," he said.
The OECD report, A Skills Beyond School Review of the United States, suggests that the US should improve training to help students move into vocational training programmes and employment.
Report author Simon Field said that the system must become more "coherent and transparent" for students and employers.
"Often students are entering programmes where they are paying high fees but they don't know anything about the quality or the potential labour market outcomes. That's not a desirable situation," he said. "The White House has started to address this with its College Scorecard initiative to help students get more information about colleges and universities, but more needs to be done."
The Lumina Foundation for Education, a billion-dollar private foundation with a mission to expand student access, has set a goal of increasing the proportion of Americans who have high-quality college degrees, certificates or other credentials from less than 40 per cent to 60 per cent by 2025.
The foundation's president and chief executive, Jamie Merisotis, argues that "talent development" must be the US's prime objective. "We can't expect our citizens to meet the demands of the 21st-century economy and society without a 21st-century education," he said.
Photo credit: Reuters