WASHINGTON — When it comes to worker productivity, nobody beats the United States. At least, not yet.
The average American employee produces more cars, computers, and soda pops per hour than any other worker in the industrialized world. But according to a just-released federal study, this economic strength may be slipping away fast.
In its comprehensive study "Education and the Economy," the US Department of Education says that the US edge in education, which has driven US economic dominance since the end of World War II, has been blunted in recent years. As America's competitors give their workers more education and training, their skills and productivity have come within reach of those of the US.
The study comes at a time when American education is under the greatest scrutiny in nearly 30 years. President Clinton has said that schools and academic achievement are at the top of his agenda.
The study also adds harder evidence to the contentious national debate on how companies and the government can widen the education and training opportunities of older working citizens.
Perhaps the most startling news surrounds an international survey on adult literacy. More than 40 percent of American adult workers had trouble reading and interpreting basic memos, charts, and instruction manuals likely to be encountered in the workplace. Of the six other nations that took part in the international reading tests, only Poland fared worse than the US in literacy.
When it comes to high school and college graduation rates for all age groups, America still ranks No. 1.
But the study found that the world's top industrialized countries have narrowed the gap in recent years. For citizens between ages 25 and 34, Japan ranks first with 90 percent of its citizens completing high school. Germany ranks second with 88 percent; the US is third with 86 percent.
In the area of worker training, America places somewhere toward the middle, and slightly ahead of Germany. More than 4 in 10 American workers had undergone some form of formal worker training by 1991, everything from computer skills to stress-management.
The quality of such training programs differs widely, so comparing workers of the world by their hours of training is inconclusive. Because highly skilled workers in the US are more likely to receive additional training than less-skilled counterparts, some experts question whether training is being directed at the workers who need it most.
Literacy Pays Off
American workers who read well are more likely to receive high paychecks and less likely to be jobless. For poor readers, the reverse is true.
Literacy's Link to Weekly Earnings*
Most competent readers $910
Good readers 709
Satisfactory readers 531
Below-average readers 496
Poorest readers 355
Literacy's Link to Unemployment
Most competent readers 4.2%
Good readers 5.6
Satisfactory readers 7.9
Below-average readers 15.4
Poorest readers 16.9
* Shows mean weekly earnings.
Source: Andrew Sum, "Literacy and the Labor Force," US Department of Education. The figures rate American adults for their ability to read prose, one of the study's three measures of literacy.