Numerous recent studies have shown that Americans are lacking in problem solving skills, particularly when compared to citizens of other countries.

The ability to solve problems is crucial to any countries future in business, education, government, and pretty much every other field. How can we expect to lead the world in innovations and world-changing technologies if we cannot solve problems?

A study by the Educational Testing Service found that:

  • In literacy, U.S. millennials scored lower than 15 of the 22 participating countries. Only millennials in Spain and Italy had lower scores.
  • In numeracy, U.S. millennials ranked last, along with Italy and Spain.
  • In PS-TRE, U.S. millennials also ranked last, along with the Slovak Republic, Ireland, and Poland.
  • The youngest segment of the U.S. millennial cohort (16- to 24-year-olds), who could be in the labor force for the next 50 years, ranked last in numeracy along with Italy and among the bottom countries in PS-TRE. In literacy, they scored higher than their peers in Italy and Spain.

test scores

Last in numeracy and problem solving! How is it that we have allowed ourselves to reach this point?

Businesses are feeling the effects of this lacking skill set. A Wall Street Journal article from October 2014 quoted a Harris Interactive study and reported:

“A Harris Interactive survey of 2,001 U.S. college students and 1,000 hiring managers last fall found that 69% of students felt they were “very or completely prepared” for problem-solving tasks in the workplace, while fewer than half of the employers agreed.”

Half of hiring managers do not believe that recent college graduates are prepared for problem solving tasks on the job.

Companies need employees who can see problems and implement solutions and who can seek out opportunities and take advantage of them. It’s these type of people who have made American companies some of the greatest in the world and created some of the world’s greatest technologies and products.

Skills such as literacy, numeracy, and problem solving are some of the most basic skills that help people start new companies, develop solutions to society’s problems, and effectively run governments. They certainly are not the only skills needed to do these things, but without these foundations innovations of all types will stagnate.

Education is the first and most obvious place to start to fix these issues, but it will not be an easy process. Too many classrooms are based on teaching memorization and not focused on the real-world application of concepts from different subjects.

Bryan Cordova, in an article for The Pioneer, the online magazine for California State University East Bay, discusses how memorization of facts is a disservice to students. He lists six different subjects and what they actually teach versus what they should teach. He says:

“Instead of the majority of lessons in high school being facts that we can use for trivia, we should be teaching students how things work, and take more hands-on approaches. We should stay away from rewarding students with grades for showing the ability to memorize theories, and empower them with applied knowledge.”

I could not agree more. Students at all levels, and Americans across the board, should know how to apply knowledge to existing problems and how to seek out the knowledge they need to solve problems when they cannot do it on their own.

If we do not begin to correct this failing of Americans, we will be putting our future in a perilous place.