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US and China failing to nurture their workers

Tuesday, 1 Oct 2013 | 9:00 AM ET
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The world's largest economies - the U.S., China and Japan - are behind other nations when it comes to maximizing the long-term economic potential of their labor forces, according to a new report.

The first-ever World Economic Forum's (WEF) Human Capital Index, which measures countries on their success at developing and employing healthy, educated workers, ranked Switzerland as the best country for developing human capital, followed by Finland and Singapore.

The U.S., China and Japan failed to make the top ten, although Germany placed sixth, and the U.K. came in eighth.

The report evaluated nations in four areas: education, health and wellness, workforce and employment, and enabling environment.

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According to the WEF, the productive skills and capacities of each nation is a hugely important determinant of long-term economic success.

"The key for the future of any country and any institution lies in the skills and talent of its people," said Klaus Schwab, WEF's executive chairman. "In the future, human capital will be the most important kind of capital. Investing in people is not just a nice to have; it is imperative for growth, prosperity and progress."

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Japan and the U.S. came in fifteenth and sixteenth in the rankings respectively, while China was the highest-ranking of the BRICS economies, at number 43. In all, the WEF evaluated 122 countries.

Countries at the bottom of the rankings included Egypt (111), Pakistan (112), Nigeria (114) and Yemen, which came in last place.

While the U.S. is praised for its capacity to attract talent and the high proportion of its university-educated workforce, it ranked lower because of non-communicable diseases during prime working ages and low levels of mental well-being.

These health factors highlighted by the WEF come at a time when the U.S. Congress is engaged in a huge standoff over "Obamacare," which has led to a government shutdown.

(Read more: Americans hate their jobs, even with office perks)

Japan's performance was held back by the quality of education which "remains a persistent issue", according to the WEF. China was criticized for its health measures, the quality of its legal framework and the low levels of tertiary education.

In Europe, while the northern nations of the U.K. and Germany make the top ten, those in the south and the east fare poorly. France (21) and Spain (29) were both praised for their health and wellness scores, while Italy (37), Greece (55) and Serbia (85) are further down the list.

Commenting on the differing labor landscape across the world, Saadia Zahidi, head of the WEF's Human Capital project, said, "Some countries face an aged or ageing population, others face youth bulges, a few even face both. For some, this means confronting a major upcoming talent crunch, while for others it means developing mechanisms that allow it to realize their population's potential rather than letting it develop into a burden."