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The EU should not leave behind its citizens lacking basic education

On 7 and 8 February, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Cedefop) held a "policy learning forum" to explore ways of creating new learning and training opportunities for low-skilled adults, who account for 25% of Europe's workforce and total more than 64 million people.

The Policy learning forum (PLF) on upskilling pathways: a vision for the future focused on the Council Recommendation on Upskilling pathways: New opportunities for adults, adopted in late 2016, which targets the working-age population who are otherwise not eligible for Youth Guarantee support, an EU-funded scheme aimed at people under 25.

The Recommendation aims to ensure that all European citizens are given a chance to acquire the minimum set of skills, knowledge and competences required for the labour market and active participation in society. 

The PLF brought together representatives of governments, the social partners and civil society in a bid to create a platform for exchanging ideas and practices between countries with regard to the design and implementation of systems for updating the skills of adults who struggle with basic reading and writing, numeracy or computer literacy.

The event will be followed by other similar events to be organised by Cedefop to complement the Commission's ongoing initiatives in this area.

"64 million people are being left behind. In an economic crisis, these people are the first to be made redundant. During the economic recovery, these are the last people that will be able to re-enter the labour market," president of the EESC's Labour Market Observatory, Carlos Trindade, said as he opened the conference.

"We need to invest in them. These 64 million people need to be able to improve their quality of life and level of prosperity. We need to ensure that economic and social progress is equitable. No-one should be left behind," Mr Trindade stated.

Antonio Ranieri, Head of the Department for Learning and Employability at Cedefop, explained that the last economic crisis had created a structural shift in unemployment. Despite a recovery in the level of unemployment on average, the low-skilled individual's employment rate has not recovered as quickly. "This increasing employment gap is something new," he said.

The lack of adequate basic skills has manifold negative effects, affecting the health and well-being of individuals, as well as their satisfaction with life or their social engagement. It also affects employers and the economy and society as a whole, stalling productivity and growth or increasing costs for health or welfare systems or for maintaining law and order.

"Unlocking the potential of the low-skilled brings economic benefits," said Lidia Salvatore of Cedefop, adding that according to a Cedefop study, the aggregated economic net benefit of reducing the size of the low-skilled population to 7.4% by 2025 would total EUR 200 billion per year. 

Upskilling pathways, as proposed by the Council, have three key steps – skills assessment, tailored learning opportunities and finally, validation and recognition. The implementation will rely on the structures already in place in the Member States, or will involve building new ones, depending on the situations in the various Member States, which considerably vary across the EU.

It is up to the Member States to identify priorities and to designate subgroups within the low-skilled population which they would choose to target first, as this group is very heterogeneous and can include people from disadvantaged backgrounds, long-term unemployed people with obsolete skills, migrants and others. Countries should reach the first milestones by 2018.

The conference pointed to the need to prevent young people from becoming low-skilled, by stopping them from leaving school early. As many as 60% of early school dropouts are inactive or unemployed, the speakers said.

New evidence from another Cedefop study suggests that vocational education and training (VET) can have a positive role in encouraging young people to go back to school or to keep them in education, making this type of education "attractive as a second chance opportunity".

However, a recent opinion survey on VET found that many people were not given information about the possibility of participating in VET. 52% of the people who undertook general education were not informed about VET, 25% were advised against it and a total of 45% of low-skilled individuals reported that they had not heard of it or did not know what it is.

To support these low-skilled individuals in getting back into training or into the labour market, it is crucial to have adequate support and guidance systems, which will allow for adequate tailored training, participants agreed. One concrete example explored during the event was using apprenticeships as a format for upskilling adults. Since it includes important work-based components, apprenticeships for adults could be a more appropriate form of training for this group.

Much emphasis was also put on the recognition and validation of the learning acquired through apprenticeship schemes or other means. To this end, and especially when talking about adults, it is absolutely essential to make the validation of non-formal and informal learning – learning acquired outside formal institutions – both visible and valuable. Low-skilled individuals may have already acquired certain skills that are valuable, but they do not possess the qualification or certificate that makes those skills visible.

EESC Member Christa Schweng said it was equally important to support learners and companies providing upskilling opportunities. "Training provision needs to take into account the needs of both employers and workers," she stressed. "Support measures should be put in place for both sides."

In his closing remarks at the conference, Cedefop Director James Calleja underlined that developing adequate policies required a careful analysis of learning needs. "There are different tools available: what is important is that we use them," he added. 

The President of the EESC's Section for Employment and Social Affairs, Pavel Trantina, said he advocated for the creation of a quality charter in the validation of non-formal and informal learning in order to ensure trust in the upskilling pathways measures. He also emphasised the importance of guidance in a lifelong learning context.

Concluding the event, Mr Trantina described it as "the beginning of a fruitful cooperation with Cedefop" that will be followed by the Vocational Education and Training/Employment Encounters.