There was a time when education and training were for life. But amid today’s social transformations only lifelong learning will do.
The Covid-19 crisis and the recovery strategy adopted by European and national decision-makers are accelerating transformations within our societies, intensifying rapid and deep changes in the labour market. Digitalisation, globalisation, population ageing and the green transition are changing the quantity and quality of jobs available.
Some jobs will be destroyed or change significantly, for instance due to automation. Yet new jobs will also be created, in the care economy, in the domain of artificial intelligence and in the ecological arena—in renewable energies, energy efficiency, the circular economy and waste management.
These dynamics have major impacts on the demand for skills. Displaced workers’ skills will likely become obsolete (since the jobs destroyed and those created require very different skillsets) and significant skills gaps may emerge (particularly where workers face changes in the skills required to do their jobs effectively)—and so skills shortages. Indeed, these already hamper the competitiveness and innovation capacity of firms and dampen growth and productivity across the European Union.
In this changing labour environment, where the need for upskilling and reskilling is greater than ever, ‘frontloading’ skills in a single qualification for life, derived from initial education, is not effective. Adopting instead a lifecycle perspective on skills development—as a process of building, maintaining and improving skills throughout life—will allow the benefits of social transformations to be reaped and their side-effects offset.
Not up to the task
Our adult learning systems have a key role to play in this, but they are not up to the task. First, not enough adults train—only around 38 per cent in the EU—although there are major differences among member states. Business-led systems are meanwhile making access to training difficult for more and more people, with the rise in non-standard work and increasingly fragmented careers.
Secondly, those who need training the most—the poorly educated, the unemployed and older people, as well as workers in elementary occupations, on non-standard contracts or working in small and medium enterprises—train the least. The gulf is especially wide for low-educated adults in the EU, whose average participation in training is 40 percentage points below that of high-skilled adults (18 per cent against 58 per cent respectively).
Thirdly, training can be poor in quality—a worry likely to intensify with the rise of online learning. And it often does not match the needs of the labour market, which means workers who do need to change occupation or even sector will not necessarily be provided with the means to make that professional transition.
Lastly, there is a collective underinvestment in adult learning: EU member states invest on average 0.5 per cent of gross domestic product in adult retraining and upskilling, compared with 4.6 per cent of GDP in education as a whole. And then there are co-ordination challenges in government, with responsibilities for adult learning being almost systematically scattered across ministries, levels and actors.
Individual learning accounts
While member states remain in the driving seat when it comes to adult education, the EU has an important role to play to ensure training systems are fit for the future. The European Commission has pledged, among other initiatives in the updated Skills Agenda for Europe, to explore individual learning accounts (ILAs) as a way to close gaps in access to training and empower adults to manage labour-market transitions successfully. The proposal should be published in early December.
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ILAs attach training rights to the individual rather than her job or status. This guarantees that all workers, regardless of status, have access to training—including non-standard workers, the self-employed and all those with a weaker link to their employer. In addition, thanks to ILAs, individuals can accumulate and transfer training entitlements as an evolving portfolio throughout their working life, no matter how many times they move from one job or employment status to another.
By creating an individual right to adult learning, ILAs could help bring about the change of mindset on lifelong learning we urgently need. At present, 80 per cent of non-learners do not train because they are unwilling to do so and, more specifically, because they do not believe there is a real need for them so to do. ILAs could help overcome this lack of awareness about the need to train throughout life, since they empower people to invest in their own skills and qualifications and to have greater control over their own learning.
This change of mindset also has to happen within companies and states, which need to fully recognise the benefit—economic as well as social—of investing in ‘human capital’. As such, ILAs could increase companies’ and states’ willingness to invest in adult learning, and prompt systemic reform of adult-learning systems to address their shortcomings.
ILAs should not though be a substitute, one-size-fits-all solution. Their national design would guarantee that they were adapted to each country’s specificities. At the same time, European guidelines would ensure all ILA schemes were designed:
- to be inclusive, by offering more support, guidance and information, skills assessment and validation for specific disadvantaged groups;
- to foster relevant and high-quality training, through certification, learners’ rating systems, skills anticipation and top-ups from various stakeholders to promote in-demand skills, and
- to contribute to synergies among stakeholders within the training ecosystem.
This contribution by stakeholders—in particular the social partners—is crucial, to anticipate continuously the skills needed on tomorrow’s labour markets, as well as to inform workers, especially those most in need of up/reskilling, about available training opportunities.
In the longer term, national ILAs should be complemented by a European individual learning account, to make training rights not only portable across occupations and status but also across countries. This would increase transparency as to the rights of mobile workers, while fostering mobility across the continent and strengthening the feeling of belonging to the European project.
The coming commission initiative on ILAs and the recovery and resilience plans, with the scope they offer for investment and reform, provide the opportunity and the means to deliver on the commitments made during the Porto Social Summit last May and trigger an overhaul of education and training systems. It is high time to create the ‘right to training for each worker, during all their life’ which the then commission president, Jacques Delors, was already urging 30 years ago.