Europe urgently needs a skilled workforce to be competitive and prosperous

As part of the European Year of Skills, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a conference on Skills and talents as key drivers for personal fulfilment, economic growth and competitiveness on 10 March to assess the needs and issue recommendations regarding skills development in the EU.

Amid growing concern that Europe's competitiveness will be endangered unless its workforce is sufficiently skilled to get to grips with the challenges of the green and digital transition and remain employable in the new world of work, the conference stressed the need to equip people with adequate skills. This is key to responding to acute shortages in the labour market, where companies are struggling to find qualified workers.

Although academic education plays a vital role, dual education and work-based learning, such as apprenticeships, are paramount as they are able to pinpoint and anticipate market needs and respond to them, speakers in the conference concluded.

The conference was opened by EESC president Christa Schweng and Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights Nicolas Schmit.

Developing skills and talents is a win-win situation. It is a way to empower everybody and promote personal fulfilment and good careers, as well as a way to enable businesses, especially SMEs, to function, thrive, innovate and create jobs and growth, said Ms Schweng as she opened the conference.

Europe needs to rebuild and strengthen its competitiveness. We should work on our education systems and adapt them to the changing world but skills are more than education. It is especially important to make the link to personal fulfilment as the perceptions of work and values among young people are changing. Soft skills are important for competitive innovative companies and can also contribute to personal fulfilment, said Mr Schmit.

The Swedish presidency will highlight how education can contribute to the transition and upskilling. We will initiate a discussion on the conditions necessary for individuals and businesses to be able to obtain the skills they need for the green transition, mainstreaming the gender perspective, said Sophia Metelius, State Secretary to the Swedish Minister for Employment and Integration, Johan Pehrson.

The conference took a closer look at dual education and in-work training, and at apprenticeships in particular, as an excellent way to prepare people for the challenges ahead.

Ms Metelius described the Higher Vocational Education programmes available in Sweden, where businesses and companies play an active role in planning and provision. As a result, more than 90% of students from the programmes are employed within a year of graduating. Of these, more than half work for the company where they had their workplace training.

We are facing the enormous challenge of empowering people, particularly adults, to obtain and maintain the skills needed to find a job and stay in that job. Experts see work-based approaches to upskilling as much more suited than classroom-based instruction or long training courses, said Mara Brugia, Deputy Executive Director at CEDEFOP.

She placed special emphasis on apprenticeships as a good way for young learners and adults to acquire skills: Adult apprenticeships can contribute simultaneously to upskilling and to their integration into the twin transition. For this to happen, apprenticeships must be geared to adults' needs and characteristics, which is still not the case in most EU Member States.

The event featured contributions from representatives of social partners and civil society organisations, including Petri Salminen, President of SMEunited, Martha Schultz, Vice-president of Eurochambres, Maxime Cerutti, Director at BusinessEurope, Ludovic Voet, Confederal Secretary of the ETUC and Brikena Xhomaqi, Director of the Lifelong Learning Platform.

The conference also discussed the EU Talent Pool which should help address labour and skills shortages and contribute to making the EU a more attractive destination for talented professionals looking for job opportunities outside their own countries.