Lifelong learning is an individual right for workers

Lifelong learning will ensure jobs and decent living standards. However, in the absence of a standardised system across the EU, not all workers have opportunities to reskill and upskill during their careers, an EESC study finds

Lifelong learning and training should be guaranteed as an individual right for workers and social dialogue needs to be strengthened; these were two of the main recommendations of an European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) study presented at a public hearing on 29 June.

In his opening remarks, Lech Pilawski, president of the EESC’s Labour Market Observatory (LMO), said a commitment to lifelong learning and training would ensure people have jobs, decent living standards and can meet the challenges of the transition to a green and digital economy.

The EU’s labour market has been undergoing a profound transformation in the types of skills needed, the way work is organised and in the relationships between workers, companies and civil society organisations. The challenges faced by workers and companies due to these changes have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war against Ukraine.

The LMO study The work of the future: ensuring lifelong learning and training of employees, examined labour market challenges and trends, collected examples of good practices and made recommendations to encourage EU member countries and companies to better integrate lifelong learning and training into the workplace.

Reskilling and upskilling

Workers need more encouragement to reskill and upskill to meet the changing needs of the workplace, said Cinzia Del Rio, coordinator of the LMO study.

We saw the effects of the pandemic and the fact that increasingly we needed to adapt people’s skills to keep them working and to also guarantee the competitiveness and profitability of their companies, she said. Training underpins those factors.

The study looked at the situations in 12 EU countries. It collected good practices as examples for recommendations, such as guaranteeing lifelong learning and training as a right held by workers.

It found that there was no standardised system across the EU for ensuring all workers have opportunities to reskill and upskill during their careers. Dialogue should also be strengthened between governments, companies and social partners and other civil society organisations.

Inclusive training

A guarantee to lifelong learning as an individual right for workers could be done through legislation or employment contracts. Social partners need to ensure training needs are accounted for in collective agreements. Lifelong learning must also be more inclusive.

Special attention should also be paid to the difficulties small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) face in providing lifelong training schemes for employees. Instilling good practices on learning and training in the workplace also improve a worker’s ability to switch jobs across sectors and within the EU, Del Rio noted.

The recognition, certification and means to evaluate workers’ skills across different EU countries also needs to be better harmonised to improve labour mobility.

Social and civil rights

The day-long public hearing discussed the study’s recommendations and examined issues relating to financing, equal access, the validation of competences and skills, and lifelong learning in the public sector.

Alison Crabb, head of the unit in charge of the European Skills Agenda at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, noted that the right to lifelong learning is part of the social and civil rights of EU citizens.

There is no single silver bullet to the skills challenge we are facing today,” she said. “It really is a mosaic of actions at different levels bringing together social partners, civil society and policymakers at European, national and local levels.

Crabb noted that employment ministers from EU countries had adopted in June two European Council recommendations on engaging more adults in reskilling and upskilling opportunities.

She highlighted that access to validation arrangements for the mutual recognition of qualifications is not the norm in any EU country and needs to be improved.

The EU’s Pact for Skills, launched in November 2020, provides a means of engaging all partners, including companies, workers, and national, regional and local authorities, in providing investment in upskilling and reskilling. Commitments so far from the partnerships include six million training opportunities of which 650 are currently available, said Crabb.

More investment in training needed

Financing lifelong learning by companies was the topic of a panel discussion led by moderator and LMO member Kinga Joó. Enrico Limardo from Italy’s Fondazione Consulenti per il Lavoroprovided an insight into the financing of training schemes for adults.

Italy suffers from a low engagement of workers in training schemes and measures are being developed to increase that rate.

Stéphane Lardy, Director General of France Compétences, said companies and workers received additional help during the COVID-19 pandemic. The new challenge is finding a good balance between the cost of training and amount of money available for that training.

Isabelle Barthès, Deputy General Secretary of IndustriAll Europe emphasised that training has always been a long-standing priority of trade unions.

We are fully aware of the lack of engagement and we have been aware of that for a long time and this is why we are engaged in promoting training because we really see it as essential for workers to keep up with technological developments, to maintain their employability, she said. This is essential to support their professional development and also to promote quality jobs.

She emphasised the important role of social partners in forging sectoral agreements and called for additional resources for increasing the amount of training available to workers.

Boosting performance

Franz Eiffe, a research officer at Eurofound, spoke about research by the EU agency, which found that businesses can boost performance while taking measures to increase employee autonomy, encourage them to voice opinions and promote training and learning. Around one-fifth of EU workplaces have such measures in place.

People-centred workplaces not only perform better, but are also more digitalised and more innovative, he concluded, with successful examples in place across all types of business regardless of country, size, sector, or competitiveness strategy.

A panel moderated by Carlos Manuel Trindade, LMO’s Vice-president, discussed measures to guarantee equal access to lifelong learning. Valentina Guerra of SMEunited spoke about the difficulties SMEs face in providing staff training and stressed the importance of social dialogue for solving existing difficulties.

Important role for guidance and counselling

A third panel led by LMO member Marina Calderone discussed measures to encourage the mutual recognition of qualifications and the role of guidance and counselling in lifelong learning.

Pauline Boivin, Project and Policy manager at the Lifelong Learning Platform, emphasised the need for more investment in validation procedures for qualifications. Current measures are insufficient and are not reaching all workers.

Transversal skills are not visible enough, while it is not easy for employers to assess such skills. Such skills are more prevalent in the VET education sector but need to be integrated into all educational curricula and have a suitable validation process.

Lech Pilawski stressed that formal education needs reforming.

That is the period of life where cross-cutting skills can be acquired easily, he said. If you have a young person who has finished their studies but are lacking certain skills because their professors or teachers have not been able to help them acquire these skills then we are dealing with a fundamental problem.

Another panel led by LMO member Paul Soete discussed lifelong learning in the public sector.  Aleksandra Wąsik, of the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions and the Polish teachers' association, noted that the public sector finds itself in the same difficult situation on lifelong learning as SMEs.

Education and the public sector as a whole really suffered during the pandemic. It is under-financed. We need to keep teachers motivated and keep them engaged in lifelong training, he concluded.