The European Commission has just published its so-called New Skills Agenda. I welcome this initiative as it addresses many of the challenges of tomorrow’s labour market. At the same time, I am rather concerned that the scope of the Agenda is far too narrow. Its main focus is on raising the lowest level of skills of the European workforce. To adequately face major challenges such as globalization and digitalisation, the Skills Agenda should also include policies for up-skilling professionals of higher qualification levels.
According to the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training, 46 percent of all job openings in the EU will by 2025 require employees to be highly qualified. Meanwhile, 40 percent of jobs will demand medium qualifications, and only 12 percent of them low ones. This poses a staggering challenge for us all. The future of European growth, thus, lies in a knowledge-intense labour market.
To accomplish this, an increased focus on medium- and high-skilled workers is key. Simply improving the employability of the low skilled by raising their qualification level is not enough. The European labour market is in dire need of a better dynamic where the professional advancement and mobility of skilled workers create job openings for the lower skilled to aspire to.
According to the Commission’s own factsheets, all three of the fastest growing occupations in Sweden, for example administrators and teachers, are found among TCO’s sectors. Although we have a far higher level of skills and educational attainment, Sweden scores over ten percent above the EU average when it comes to the share of employers who have difficulties finding employees with the right skills. This clearly shows that having a workforce with a relatively high level of qualifications is not enough.
Meanwhile, in a recent survey, TCO found that 50 percent of all professional employees in Sweden had, during the past year, thought of really wanting to change jobs and/or profession. In the same survey, 44 percent of professionals in Sweden stated they were in need of re-education and skill advancement, which they can’t expect to acquire as part of their current jobs or through employer-led skills development. This means that nearly half of the professional employees in the workforce need to turn to the conventional education system, to ensure their future relevance and employability within the labour market. Instead of serving as an answer to this latent demand for re-education and training, by limiting its scope to the low-skilled, the Skills Agenda neglects the potential of these mid-career professionals.
From TCO’s perspective, we see two main issues that both member states and the EU must address:
- A more adequate provision of re-education possibilities for mid-career adults. The range and forms of both higher education and vocational education and of training must be better attuned to the needs of learners who have already attained several years of professional experience.
- Better guidance opportunities and improved conditions for professionals to combine work and training through periods of both part- and full-time paid educational leave.
Both of these matters are addressed in the Commission’s New Skills Agenda and its associated Skills Guarantee, although only targeting the low-skilled. The Commission has also flagged its intentions of – as an extension of the Skills Agenda – revising parts of the so-called Modernisation Agenda for Higher Education, from 2011. Again, the intentions are good but alarmingly thin. As part of the sensible efforts now being made to tackle the challenges of the structural transformation of the labour market, the Commission needs to present a strategy for the re-education and professional mobility of medium-to-high qualified professionals.
With less than four years to go, we need to see initiatives that outline what comes after the horizon of the European Education and Training 2020 Strategy (ET2020). Giving practical meaning to the concept of lifelong learning for all must be at the core of such a policy.