The OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) is an initiative of the OECD that assists governments in assessing, monitoring and analysing the level and distribution of skills among their adult populations as well as the extent of skills use in different contexts. In order to achieve this, PIAAC aims at the collection of cross-nationally comparable data in OECD countries on key skills and their main antecedents and outcomes.

The team is part of a larger project consortium which includes ETS, Westat, GESIS, cApStAn and IEA.

Funded by: OECD

Duration: January 2018 – December 2024

  • About the project

    In January 2018, PIAAC has entered its second cycle; the first data from PIAAC Cycle 1 (in which ROA was also involved) were released in 2013. ROA is responsible for the development of the Background Questionnaire (BQ) for PIAAC Cycle 2. The data from this new cycle (covering over 30 OECD countries) are scheduled to be collected in 2022-2023, and released in 2024.

    PIAAC Cycle 2 follows up on Cycle 1, and aims to achieve three broad objectives. First, it aims to paint a picture of the stock of those information processing, social and emotional, and other transversal skills needed for effective functioning in the labour market and in society in general across a wide range of countries. Secondly, PIAAC Cycle 2 intends to contribute to understanding of how these skills relate to important economic and social outcomes, and to individual, institutional and social factors that can influence the development, maintenance, and loss of such skills over the lifecycle. Finally, PIAAC Cycle 2 provides an important tool for policy makers interested in finding optimal ways to enhance the development, maintenance and productive deployment of these skills.

    As articulated in its three main objectives, PIAAC Cycle 2 aims to shed light on important questions of how modern societies function, how their institutions and their constituent citizens are able to deal with the rapid and sometimes bewildering changes taking place in the world, and how “at-risk” populations with low literacy levels can be identified. These more general analytical questions are closely linked to policy questions of how to design policies to enhance the effective production, maintenance and deployment of skills in society. More specifically, the following three broad policy questions are central in PIAAC:

    1. How are skills distributed?

    It is difficult to overstate the importance that is attached to the distribution of skills in policy discussions and debates in today’s world. One of the major concerns for most countries is that they may be falling behind in the race to provide their populations with the skills that are required to compete and function in the world. Within countries there are concerns that certain subpopulations are heavily affected by low levels of key skills, which severely hampers their ability to take part in the economy, enjoy good health and well-being and to function in broader society. Beyond the resulting individual distress, this places a severe burden on the countries’ resources and budgets, and may even foster political instability. At the other end of the spectrum, there are also concerns voiced as to whether there are enough people with high levels of these skills, so that countries can stay close to the cutting edge in terms of new technological and economic developments. However, in some countries it rather seems like there is an oversupply already of high levels of general skills, and shortages with respect to medium and high levels of vocational skills. Therefore, policymakers have an interest in monitoring the stock of human capital in their country and in identifying the different levels among relevant subgroups. PIAAC enables the assessment of the stock of human capital in a society by providing a descriptive analysis of the distribution of skills proficiencies, as well as skills use, in the adult population. This is crucial for the development of effective policies, as well as for allowing citizens to make informed choices in acquiring skills through education and training.

    2. Why are skills important?

    From a policy point of view, the main justification for devoting a large portion of national budgets to investment in education is the assumption that it brings forth skills that contribute directly to relevant outcomes, and this public investment cannot be fully replaced by private investments. For that reason, one of the key goals of PIAAC is to provide indicators that can be used to show if differences in skills matter economically and socially. The most obvious area in which policymakers are interested is how skills levels relate to economic outcomes of individuals. Cognitive skills are considered a key determinant of an individual’s productivity, and there is robust evidence linking cognitive skills to both economic outcomes (e.g., income, social status) and non-economic outcomes such as health, well-being, and political engagement. Adverse outcomes in such areas place large burdens on governments, democracy, businesses, and individuals, including both the direct expenditure of resources (such as government spending on health care) and indirect costs (such as the value of goods and services workers do not produce while ill). Above and beyond cognitive skills, social and emotional skills such as conscientiousness or emotional stability have emerged as important determinants to the same economic and non-economic outcomes. By including a measure of such social and emotional skills, PIAAC Cycle 2 will provide unprecedented opportunities for policy-relevant research into how cognitive and social and emotional skills co-shape life; and how their relative importance varies by the specific outcome under consideration, by sociodemographic subgroup, and/or by country. Additionally, one of the main contributions of PIAAC is in freeing researchers and policy analysts from the need to conduct discussions on the returns to skills through proxies such as education and training. From a policy perspective, this overreliance on educational attainment as a proxy for human capital is unsatisfactory, not only because education is an imperfect measure of skills, but also because of a risk of misattribution when interpreting the labour market returns from investments in education

    3. What factors are related to skill acquisition and decline?

    From a policy perspective, it is important to understand the factors that may be related to skill development, because this helps render policy more effective, as well as allowing a better understanding of why certain subpopulations are exposed to a higher risk of low literacy. It is important to not only understand factors that can be directly influenced by policy, like education and training, but also factors that are incidental to the manner in which people go about their daily lives, like the family setting during childhood, or simply trying out new things at work and in social life and learning through trial and error. Despite a vast amount of research dating back to the middle of the last century, much remains unknown about the exact contribution of education to skill levels relative to other learning processes, and of the mechanisms through which learning is achieved. Finally, we need to be aware that skills can be acquired, but also can be lost. Preventing skill decline is, in times of population ageing, probably just as important as promoting skill acquisition, but the underlying factors affecting these processes may be quite different and it is important to have good insight in both processes. Therefore, PIAAC captures a broad range of measures of formal and non-formal education (“training”), as well as other determinants of skills acquisition and decline (e.g. childhood conditions and working conditions).

    Earlier publications related to the PIAAC project: