EESC-Cedefop forum on skills: the EU must anticipate trends in order to keep up, and not just adapt to change

More flexible and even tailored pathways to upskilling and lifelong learning can be one way of reaching people with low skills levels, from poorer backgrounds or at risk of social exclusion. Attention still needs to be paid to gender imbalances in labour markets.

The European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Cedefop) and the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held their fifth Policy Learning Forum on upskilling pathways (A vision for the Future) in Brussels on 6 and 7 February 2024. This forum allows countries to learn from one another and to explore ways to improve upskilling, reskilling and lifelong skills development, including training for low-skilled adults in Europe.

The first day of the forum was devoted to the challenges of providing upskilling pathways for adults with low qualifications. Promoting upskilling pathways for all adults by no means implies that low-skilled adults no longer deserve our attention - on the contrary. But exclusively targeting the low-skilled is simply not enough, as this would risk overlooking the broader implications of the technological evolution for the entire workforce, said Mara Brugia, Cedefop Deputy Director.

The difficult question hovering over the forum's discussions was how to reconcile the need for a personalised or individualised approach, which is especially needed – and valuable – for low-skilled adults, with the need for the large-scale upskilling that the EU needs.

Another concern is the gender segregation of labour markets, which contributes to difficulties filling new vacancies in the face of growing demand. Male-dominated activities – ICT professional services, civil engineering, transport and construction occupations – could benefit from an expanded labour supply if more women could access relevant training and jobs. On the other hand, women are over-represented in health care, residential care and social work, where work is often undervalued, and opportunities for retraining and upskilling are very weak, said Cinzia Del Rio, President of the EESC Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship.

The forum’s discussions were based on the conclusions of Cedefop's Thematic Country Reviews of France and Italy and on some preliminary indications from the review under way in Croatia.

For France, the solutions that emerged most strongly during the round table debates included: promoting approaches to reach out to low-skilled adults (unemployed and employed) and enable them to express their desire to undertake an upskilling pathway; incentivising businesses to participate in upskilling pathways to support less qualified people (employees and job seekers); and ensuring “multi-stakeholder governance” (national, regional and local authorities and partners) at the most appropriate level of government.

For Italy, it was also about closing the gap between governance and delivery through streamlined multi-stakeholder governance at the most appropriate level, as well as about boosting the effectiveness of communication, including through informal social networks. In addition, Croatian representatives drew attention to the need for flexible training for low-skilled adults.

The second day of the forum focused on learning-conducive work environments, social dialogue and employers' policies. As emphasised in the discussions, the approach in these policies needs to go beyond reaction and adaptation, but to try to be proactive and anticipate change as well.

Therefore, in addition to studying megatrends such as demographic change, it is necessary to look at other trends like medium-term shifts and patterns that indicate future needs in terms of learning-conducive work environments. Making workplaces more learning-conducive is critical to reinforce skills in a shrinking labour force – furthermore, investment in building a learning-conducive environment pays off, increasing companies' profitability and helping them tap into new talent pools, said Jürgen Siebel, Cedefop Executive Director.

According to Cedefop’s study, the trends with the highest degree of certainty of relevance (apart from the shrinking EU labour force) show that jobs will focus strongly on social and emotional skills, creativity, innovation, complex problem-solving and digital skills. This relates to the shift towards more human-centred skills less likely to be automated or replaced by machines. Other trends include an increasingly fragmented working life, an increasingly fast pace of change in jobs, a greater need for adaptability on the part of the working population, and an increasingly fluid and dynamic learning process.

Currently less than 20 percent of companies, according to Cedefop’s studies, increase their investment in skills development to boost business performance. This calls for improvements in numbers, while future challenges also require a cultural shift from a fixed to a growth mindset, which means creating an environment where people feel encouraged [and] safe, learn to grow and develop their skills.

Another of the dozen desirable features of learning-conducive work environments presented at the forum was personalised learning pathways, i.e. going beyond the fit-for-all pattern of training, and recognising informal learning. The importance of the Pact for Skills, launched by the European Commission in 2020, was emphasised too. Its aim is to get public and private organisations together and encourage them to make concrete commitments to upskilling and reskilling adults.

The process of lifelong learning is now the responsibility of employees themselves. However, it improves the quality of their work in terms of the productivity competitiveness of companies in the global market. Hence, companies also have a responsibility to plan and organise their activities in such a way as to provide training opportunities through collective agreements and the social dialogue. We need a forward-looking industrial strategy which includes skills policies that are truly effective because they involve everyone – workers and employers, said Carlos Trinidade, President of the Labour Market Observatory, EESC.