EESC-Cedefop forum points to the need for an urgent and coordinated response to low skill levels in Europe

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Estimates show that almost half of European adults have low or outdated skills, which makes the need for them to upskill and reskill ever more relevant

On 5 and 6 November, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Cedefop) held the Third Policy Learning Forum (PLF) on upskilling pathways. PLF is a platform that brings countries together to exchange practices and explore common challenges regarding upskilling adults with low skill levels.

The aim of the event, held virtually due to stringent COVID-19 measures, was to discuss the vision for the future and explore lessons learnt about the implementation of upskilling pathways in the four years following the adoption of the 2016 Council Recommendation on Upskilling pathways: New opportunities for adults.

Upskilling Pathways is a legislative proposal that forms the building block of the EU Skills Agenda, aiming to equip all Europeans with the skills required to participate in the labour market and unlock their full potential to thrive, both as individuals and as members of society.

According to research by Cedefop, 128 million adults in Europe will have to update their skills or gain new ones in order to keep or get a job that corresponds to their competences and skills level. This is the total figure for the EU-27, Iceland, Norway and the UK, and corresponds to a staggering 46.1% of the population.

Participants in the PLF forum, which included social partners and government and civil society representatives, stressed the urgency of implementing the upskilling pathways. This was especially the case against the backdrop of the current pandemic, which is already having a disruptive impact on Europe's labour markets. It threatens to further accelerate the changes in the world of work already brought about by the digital revolution, making upskilling and reskilling ever more relevant.

We need to emphasise that what we are offering is a part of the survival kit, both for workers and for employers, because business will not be as usual. Strong skills are a driver for competitiveness at the EU level but also for the personal and professional fulfilment of the individual, said EESC member and the president of the Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship, Laurenţiu Plosceanu.

Such disruptive events for labour markets, which will be further aggravated by negative demographic changes in Europe, will require a profound transformation of an economy able to reconcile sustained productivity and adequate distribution of the benefits of growth across social groups and European societies.

This will be a tremendous challenge, which translates into the need to support all people in preparing for and keeping up with the pace of change, said Jürgen Siebel, executive director of Cedefop.

He noted that many of the EU's recent legislative proposals in this area, such as the New Skills Agenda or the European Pillar of Social Rights, already build on the principle that "the best investment is in our people".

We have to ensure that every adult has lifelong opportunities to update existing skills and acquire new ones to help them navigate uncertain times and thrive in their life and career. No doubt this translates into a stronger policy focus on upskilling and reskilling of adults and especially people with low level of education and skills, insisted Mr Siebel.

In his view, upskilling and reskilling systems should be carefully designed to target different groups of the population but should also take into account the needs of enterprises, which are an important part of the equation for reaching ambitious goals.

The PLF had a successful debut in early 2018 and the second edition took place in May 2019.

The third PLF took a closer look at experiences of designing and implementing Upskilling Pathways in Finland, Ireland and the Netherlands, which highlighted the crucial importance of coordinated involvement and efforts by all stakeholders and the need for a comprehensive response to low skill levels in Europe across different policy areas.

The pivotal role of social partners in reaching the most vulnerable parts of the population in need of upskilling was singled out, as was the continuous commitment of governments to ensuring the accessibility of adult learning, especially for low-skilled people.

The ambitious agendas for upskilling in different countries already demonstrate an awareness of urgency at the highest political level, participants said.

Aside from Finland, Ireland and the Netherlands - where governments set ambitious targets with comprehensive strategies, and reforms of lifelong and adult learning that are already bearing fruit - the PLF also explored the Portuguese government's programme, Qualifica. This programme was able to boost the availability of adult training in a country in which, as of 2016, half of the population had not completed secondary education.

A targeted dual approach that simultaneously incentivises employers and employees, as well as tailored and individualised learning plans, were also among the takeaways from the workshops on the upskilling situation in the three countries.

Effective communication on the upskilling strategy and on the benefits such learning and training can bring to individuals is equally crucial, as a successful outcome can depend considerably on the motivation of individuals.

It seems that efforts on the part of some countries to create an environment in which upskilling is quite normal during people's working lives is starting to produce results.

Several surveys, such as the one conducted by Cedefop and another carried out by the Finnish Innovation fund Sitra in 2019, already show that citizens are aware of the pressing need to invest in their training and education in order not to fall behind in the new world of work.

The Finnish survey showed that almost 80% believed that within five years there would be changes in their own work that would require upskilling. Almost 60% said they would be willing to move to a different working sector if it would help in their working life.