It’s easy to assume that almost everyone, particularly in rich nations, is computer literate. After all, nearly half the world’s adults have a smartphone.

In the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, online skills are more important than ever before. Digital technology permeates every aspect of our lives. It’s part of many day-to-day activities and just about every job in every industry requires digital know-how of some kind. Yet many people struggle with it.

A quarter of adults can’t use a computer

The OECD, a club of mostly rich nations, recently published a survey on adult skills, which captures information on proficiency in literacy, numeracy and computer skills.

Almost a quarter (24.3%) of the people in the study don’t know how to use one. Ten per cent had never used a computer, so took a paper-based test.

Almost another 10% (9.6%) refused to take the computer test at all, preferring to take the paper-based assessment. That’s despite saying they had used a computer before.

Almost 5% (4.7%) of adults failed the basic test, which included using a mouse or scrolling through a web page.

Levels of skill

The remaining three quarters were sorted into four levels of proficiency: below level one; level one; level two; and level three. Only 5% of the population reached level three – those most proficient in computer-related activities.

One in seven (14.2%) were below level one, or at the very basic level of proficiency. That means that they could only complete very simple tasks, such as sorting emails into pre-existing folders.

Almost one third (28.7%) were at level one, which meant they could use email and a browser to solve a problem, but require little or no computer navigation skills to do so.

A quarter (25.7%) were at level two. Here respondents had to solve a problem using an online form and some navigation across pages and applications. One example was responding to a request for information by looking through a spreadsheet and emailing an answer.

Only 5.4% reached level three, where the problem-solving took place over multiple steps and operations.

 Distribution of computer skills among people aged 16-65
Image: NNGROUP

Why it matters

In most G20 countries, large shares of employers complain that they cannot find workers with the skills that their businesses require. In addition, poor skills severely limit people's access to better-paying and more-rewarding jobs.

We need to create a workforce with digital skills, says a World Economic Forum report, which
suggests three ways in which employers could achieve this: develop required competencies within the workforce; mine the organization for hidden talent by regularly assessing employees’ competencies and match these with in-demand skills; and bring new skills into the organization by hiring digital leaders and so-called ‘digital natives’, people who have grown up with communications technology.

It also matters to the economy. Put simply, when people lack key skills, it becomes difficult to introduce productivity-enhancing technologies and new ways of working, which in turn stalls improvements in living standards.