Of the nearly 166,000 job applicants tested by major U.S. firms in 1998, almost two out of every five -- 35.5%, to be exact -- lacked sufficient reading and math skills to perform the tasks in the job they applied for. That's up from 23% in 1997 and 19% in 1996. But the survey released last month by the American Management Assn. International (AMA) says the number is increasing not because of a "dumbing down" of the incoming workforce but because "new technologies have raised the bar for job applicants in terms of literacy and math." The deficiency rate among manufacturers surveyed by the AMA was even higher: 43%. However, it was smaller (29%) among firms that provide business and professional services. As a result, the percentage of companies that now hire applicants whose tests indicate deficiencies and then enter them in remedial training programs has increased from 5% in 1997 to 9% today, says the AMA.