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U.S. Falls Short in New Measure of Human Capital

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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A female worker adding protective coverings to new Pinot Noir plantingsBusinesses in Switzerland, Finland and Singapore milk the most economic value out of their workers—and the U.S. lags pretty far behind them. According to the World Economic Forum’s new Human Capital Index, in which researchers attempt to quantify the factors that help a country unlock the capabilities of its workforce, the U.S. has a lot of untapped potential for economic success. And the country’s biggest obstacles to exploiting that potential may be related to healthcare.

Human capital is a measure of the economic value of each member of the workforce, but exactly how to find that value has never been clear. Saadia Zahidi, the head of the World Economic Forum’s human capital project, says the index is based on four factors: Education (not just of the current workforce, but also the quality and availability of education for the country’s upcoming generation of workers), employment (with an emphasis on the successful integration of female workers, and those who are younger or older than average), health, and “enabling environment,” or how easy the legal structure of a country makes it for people to thrive as employees and entrepreneurs. “There’s a lot of debate about quantitative versus qualitative data,” Zahidi says, “and there’s no perfect measure, but we need benchmarks to work with.”

The new index is meant to create a common understanding between policy makers and business owners. “We’re hoping this will make business owners and policy makers have a multi dimensional view of human capital,” Zahidi says, “and a common view of what needs to happen to improve it.” She hopes the new rankings will promote a “life course approach” to improving human capital, with an understanding that the best investments in workers are made early. “At some point it’s too late,” Zahidi says. “Someone without a secondary education will enter the labor force, and 10 years later it’s going to be very difficult to bring them back [to school].” Even if adults have opportunities to further their education, they might not be able to take advantage of them. Better, the report suggests, to invest more resources in keeping the next generation in school.

While the U.S. has a respectable human capital ranking of 16 out of 122 countries studied, the country ranked in 43rd place where the health and wellness of its workers are concerned. The problem, Zahidi says, is the impact of noncommunicable diseases on the workforce. Heart disease and cancer were reported by business owners to have a large impact on performance, with sick leave adding up. The country’s ranking was also hit hard by the prevalence of obesity and stress in American workers, which seem to impact day-to-day productivity significantly.

The creators of the index (which you can read or view as an infographic) hope it will inspire both short-term and long-term changes in what investments are made to improve the workforce. Countries plagued with youth unemployment, Zahidi says, need to first invest in apprenticeship programs, and then in improvements in education to help the next generation of workers. For the U.S., it seems that economic growth may hinge on improvements in healthcare.


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  1. 1. kandylandy36933333 2:27 pm 10/7/2013

    my co-worker’s step-aunt makes $69 hourly on the internet. She has been laid off for eight months but last month her check was $20774 just working on the internet for a few hours. this website—–>

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  2. 2. drafter 5:03 pm 10/7/2013

    In the U.S. healthcare is not the problem. It is the people who are enabled by our governments policies who don’t take responsibility for their own lives by taking advantage of government giveaway programs that exceed those of the average Americans take home pay since they are being taxed into the poor house to pay for those giveaways..

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  4. 4. geojellyroll 10:17 pm 10/7/2013

    “For the U.S., it seems that economic growth may hinge on improvements in healthcare.”

    Hopefully the mantra of growth, growth and more growth will become an absurd concept one day in a world of limited resources.

    Link to this
  5. 5. larkalt 7:58 am 10/8/2013

    Ironically, the supply of fattening junk food at people’s workplaces contributes to obesity. People bring cheap junk food to share; employers supply cheap junk food at parties. It’s hard for people to resist when they are right next to it all day.

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  6. 6. larkalt 8:26 am 10/8/2013

    ps Social eating is a big part of the obesity problem generally.
    People bring fattening food into a social environment – like work or at a party – and cheerfully invite others to share the “goodies”. This is considered sociality in the USA culture.
    And people go to restaurants to be social, and restaurant food is generally also high fat.
    And if you object, you feel like a spoilsport, a grim reminder of people’s flab. I went to the barbeque of a social group, where most of the people were overweight. It was full of marshmallows and other junk food. I objected later, but I was met with an attitude of “there’s nothing wrong with eating treats now and then” and the suggestion that I must have an eating disorder!
    If I were that overweight I would consider it urgent NOT to be eating such stuff, and an unkindness for someone to tempt me with it. But overweight and very obese people are routinely exposed to this.
    No wonder so many people are fat, when fattening food is associated with cheerful social occasions.

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  7. 7. bongobimbo 3:41 pm 10/8/2013

    Naturally, we have to have a response from one of the pseudo-capitalist greedos who’s read Ayn Rand and probably been clunked on the head too many times by ATLAS SHRUGGED, the most awful novel I ever tried to finish. I suggest reading Adam Smith’s WEALTH OF NATIONS and learning how caring and compassionate he was toward the ones you and Ayn consider (to use the Nazi word) “useless” and worthy of destruction.

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  8. 8. rkipling 10:43 am 10/9/2013


    I’m curious? Are all of those with whom you disagree necessarily evil? Playing the Nazi card I see. Sort of like asking when someone stopped being a Nazi.

    Please don’t take this reply as hostile. From what I remember of your posts, you seem like a good person. We may disagree on a few points, but that’s okay.

    It’s been some time since I read Atlas Shrugged. I took it as primarily a condemnation of corruption in business and politics. In the story, the general public benefited from the efforts of people and companies making better products at lower prices.

    In a real life example, investors in WalMart have made money (I’m not one of them.), but the efficiency of their company allows them to sell at low prices. Investors are well served and lower income people get more for their limited money. Sounds like Ayn Rand philosophy at work to me. Who are the capitalist greedos in that example?

    If you say the big box stores put the mom and pop stores out of business, I will ask if the poor should pay more to keep mom and pop in business?

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  9. 9. bucketofsquid 12:10 pm 10/15/2013

    @rkipling – Watch or read some Ayn Rand interviews. Sociopath is about the only label that really works. She openly advocates screwing over all of the people around you for the purpose of serving personal greed. I recall one where she advocated a return to the company store concept where employees could only buy from their employer at prices higher than what they earned so they were perpetually in debt and couldn’t quit. Her concept of morality was pretty despicable.

    Link to this

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