With less than half of Europeans in possession of basic digital skills, the EU will need a skills revolution to enable a smooth transition to a digital and green economy and – more importantly – to ensure that no-one is left behind
Digitalisation and the greening of the economy are bringing about profound changes in the world of work. Although bound to make many jobs obsolete, the twin transition will offer unprecedented opportunities for the creation of new ones. But to ensure that this transition leaves nobody behind, the EU will have to ensure that its workforce is equipped with the right set of skills, which is not currently the case.
A just transition for workers of European industries: fostering opportunities for reskilling and upskilling was the topic of a hearing held by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) on 26 November. It was organised by the EESC's Labour Market Observatory and chaired by its president, Lech Pilawski.
The hearing pointed to the paramount importance of training and retraining workers, as well as that of lifelong education, for ensuring that nobody – regardless of the sector in which they work, the type of contract they have or their geographical location – is forgotten on Europe's path to going green and digital.
According to recent figures published by the World Economic Forum, in 10 years' time nine out of ten jobs will require digital skills. At the moment, only around 44% of Europeans have basic digital skills and only one in five Europeans have digital skills above the basic level. This will translate into a skills gap amounting to 1.67 million unfilled vacancies for ICT professionals by 2025.
However, although 50% of jobs will be changed by automation, only 5% will be eliminated, mostly those requiring low qualifications. It is forecast that 2.5 million jobs will be created in the EU by 2030 to meet the European Green Deal targets, leading to employment growth of 1.2%, with direct employment gains in sectors driving the green transition and indirect gains in occupations supporting it.
The pandemic has accelerated changes that were already taking place and made needs, such as the need for digital skills, more visible. This poses challenges which we can convert into opportunities – through targeted upskilling, said Carlo Scatoli, expert on skills and qualifications at the European Commission.
To enable a just transition, the EU has made upskilling a priority. Its European Social Pillar Action Plan has made adult learning a headline target: its aim is that by 2030 at least 60% of adults should have participated in a learning experience in the course of a year. This percentage stood at 37% in 2016.
Ambitious targets have also been set by the EU Skills Agenda. These include upskilling and reskilling 120 million adults per year, increasing the number of low-qualified adults participating in learning every year by 67% or raising the number of adults with basic digital skills by a quarter.
The EU has earmarked substantial funds to support the training of its workforce. Apart from the ESF fund, which has remained the main source of funding for this purpose, national recovery and resilience plans also envisage reskilling and upskilling action. On top of this, the EU has set up a Just Transition Fund of EUR 19.2 billion in current prices, which is expected to release around EUR 25.4 billion in investment.
IN NEED OF A SKILLS REVOLUTION
At the moment, Europe is not adequately prepared to tackle such unprecedented challenges facing labour markets.
The situation is dramatic. More than one third of the workforce in all Member States needs to be reskilled or upskilled. The challenge is huge; meeting the EU targets means doubling adult participation in learning. We have a long way to go, said Jürgen Siebel, Executive Director of Cedefop.
The pandemic has hardly helped. Participation in informal learning due to widespread shutdowns in economic activity is estimated to have decreased by 25%. In non-formal learning, the equivalent figure is estimated at 18%, said EESC member Tatiana Brabauskiene, rapporteur for several EESC opinions on education and training. She warned that the EU was not getting closer to the reskilling and upskilling targets set for 2025, but was in fact lagging behind pre-pandemic figures.
Hardest hit are workers employed in administrative and support service activities. In arts, entertainment and recreation, they are expected to lose nearly three-quarters of informal and non-formal learning opportunities every week on average. Disadvantaged and low-skilled workers now have fewer learning opportunities.
For Mr Siebel, vocational education and training (VET) is at the heart of the skills revolution:
It is the engine of the twin transitions and not its repair shop. It provides people – both youth and adults– companies and societies with the skills needed to master and shape the recovery, and is a prerequisite for inclusive and sustainable growth.
Eurofound's Gijs Van Houten stressed the importance of on-the-job training and of having people-centred workplaces. In such workplaces, employee autonomy is increased, their views are heard, and training and learning is promoted. These practices can be seen in around one fifth of EU workplaces, across all types of business and regardless of country, size, sector or competitiveness strategy.
Such workplaces not only perform better and secure increased well-being for their employees, but are also more digitalised and more innovative. Training is an important way to achieve positive workplace outcomes, said Ms Van Houten.
SHIELDING THE VULNERABLE THROUGH EDUCATION
Participants in the hearing stressed the importance of education for a just transition, not only in the job market but in society as a whole.
According to Susana Olivera of the Lifelong Learning Platform LLP, a just transition represents a real instrument to reduce social injustice and improve quality of life and rights.
People have to have equal access to education. When we reduce lifelong learning to employability proposals only, it reduces its capacity to develop social cohesion and personal self-fulfilment.
EESC member Sandra Parthie stressed that industry is not an investment in infrastructure only, but also in the right skills and talent to keep young people in Europe and prevent a brain drain:
Shortages in strategic value chains, as well as shortages of skilled workers, are undermining European industries' abilities to recover rapidly from the pandemic. It is of concern to employers and should be tackled not only through reindustrialisation, the circular economy and trade policy, but also through skills-related measures.
Business Europe representative Robert Plummer spoke about the importance of developing training funds, which already exist in some form in the majority of Member States, but should now be further increased.
Stefan Enica of SGI Europe warned of the risk that the lack of investment in education and skills might negatively influence the reduction of social inequalities in Member States.
People should be taught about environmental awareness and about management competencies, including understanding the climate impact of business decisions, Mr Enica said, adding that soft skills such as a democratic education and critical thinking have an important impact on the workplace.
The hearing also emphasised the need to prevent the negative effects of such profound labour market changes on the most vulnerable.
Timely reskilling and upskilling should be made available also to people already unemployed and to workers in all regions, said Laura de Bonfils of the Social Platform.
ETUC's Agnes Roman underlined the significant impact that climate policies will have on workers:
A just transition means rigorous social and economic assessment to anticipate changes and create alternative job opportunities. Workers need to know how their jobs will change and should not be left alone with their skills needs.
The future of the services sector, brought to its knees during the pandemic, did not look so bleak.
Climate action favours job creation in the services sector. We have to ensure that the jobs created have the same kind of standards we have seen in the manufacturing industry, if they are to act as safety nets during the transition from carbon-intensive manufacturing to a zero-emission economy, said Mark Bergfeld of UNI Europa.
The hearing was concluded by Mr Pilawski:
Thanks to the green and digital transition, which is happening against the backdrop of industrial strategy, we are facing profound societal changes. This is why lifelong learning and upskilling are not something that is required only by the labour market or the economy, but are a challenge for civilisation as well.