BambooHR Blog

Study Says American Millennials Lack Skills: So, What Can Be Done?

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American millennials are less skilled than their international peers. (How’s that for a cold bucket of water?) At least, that’s what researchers from Princeton-based Educational Testing Service (ETS) have concluded after they tested the job skills of millennials (born after 1980) in 23 countries.

Despite being the most educated generation ever in the country, American millennials consistently scored below their international peers in literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments (PS-TRE). And this result holds true across the different groups—best performing, most educated, those in the highest socioeconomic background, etc.

Here are some highlights (lowlights?) from the study:

  • In literacy, U.S. millennials scored lower than 15 of the 22 other participating countries.
  • In numeracy, U.S. millennials ranked last, alongside Italy and Spain.
  • In PS-TRE, U.S. millennials ranked last, alongside Slovak Republic, Ireland, and Poland.
  • The youngest segment of U.S. millennials (16 to 24-year-olds) ranked last in numeracy alongside Italy and among the bottom countries in PS-TRE. In literacy, they scored lower than their peers in every country but two (Italy and Spain).
  • Top-scoring U.S. millennials (those in the 90th percentile) scored lower than top-scoring millennials in 15 of the other 22 participating countries.
  • Low-scoring U.S. millennials (those in the 10th percentile) ranked dead last.
  • Of those with a four-year degree, U.S. millennials scored lower than their peers in every country but two (Poland and Spain).
  • Of those with a master’s or research degree, U.S. millennials scored lower than their peers in every country but three (Poland, Spain, and Ireland).

What this apparent skill gap means for U.S.-based companies in the future is still up in the air, but there is cause for concern for those trying to compete internationally.

So, what can HR do to address this issue? Here are three things to consider:

Recruiting. You cannot assume that just because somebody has a degree or even high grades in school, that they’re qualified. Look for proof of skills and, in cases where they lack experience, look for signs that an employee is a hard worker. And, perhaps even more important, an avid learner. Employees can bridge skills gaps with a determination to learn and grow. Curiosity may or may not have killed the cat, but it does make for a good employee.

Training. Do not merely train your employees. You must ensure they are learning the things they need, so when training is over, they stay equipped to problem-solve on their own and address challenges not covered in training. Otherwise, you might as well hire a robot. Consider that those who have formalized learning systems outperform those with training classes by up to three times.

Engagement. Millennials are much more willing to work hard when they are passionate about their work. In other words, when they buy into the mission of their organizations, they are more engaged. This approach to work is unique to millennials when compared to older workers, who are much more willing to put their head down and work, regardless. While you shouldn’t have to go the extra mile to get anyone to work, if you want the best work from your millennial employees, be prepared to get them to care.


To be clear, this study is troubling, but there’s plenty of reason to hope. Millennials particularly value innovation, entrepreneurship, efficiency, and autonomy. If you point them in the right direction and give them the tools they need, they can (and will) get the job done.

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