In order to adapt labor markets to the demands of the future, the European Union wishes to promote lifelong learning among the continent’s workforce. However, the proportion of adults who take advantage of learning opportunities varies considerably across Europe.
“Without skilled workers, we will not be able to deliver the change that the green and digital transitions demand of us,” Manuela Geleng, Director of Jobs and Skills at the European Commission, told a recent panel discussion.
This sentiment is shared across Europe, which is why buzzwords such as lifelong learning, skills upgrading and retraining fill the ether of public policy discourse.
Earlier this year, EU leaders endorsed an action plan proposed by the European Commission, declaring that by 2030 at least 60% of Europeans should have completed some form of learning in the past 12 month.
As a first step, the European Commission wants to reach the level of 50% by 2025.
But this is a tall order for many countries, as levels of lifelong learning differ significantly between EU member states, according to figures from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
While in Denmark already 56.7% of 25-65 year olds participated in at least one form of adult learning in 2019, the equivalent share in Italy is only 22.9%. The EU average is 38%.
Besides Denmark, other Nordic countries also top the list. Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands can also boast figures above 50%.
On the less glamorous end of the spectrum, Greece, the Slovak Republic, Hungary and Lithuania join Italy in a group of laggards, where less than 30% of the workforce has undergone some form of apprenticeship in the past 12 months.
The Commission has therefore invited the Member States to define their own national objectives which take into account their starting positions. Part of the funding for the promotion of lifelong learning will come from the European Social Fund Plus, a fund which has 99 billion euros for the period 2021-2027.
“EU funding, in particular the European Social Fund Plus, is allocated to Member States on the basis of their individual situation, such as the level of development of the regions or the unemployment rate ”, an EU official told EURACTIV.
However, Commission Geleng warned that “the EU level cannot do it alone,” saying EU funding is only complementary to actions taken by member states.
“I would like to stress the importance of more public and private funding if we are to live up to the ambition of reaching the 60% target,” she told the online panel.
Gaps in lifelong learning are not only visible between Member States, but also among employees with different education levels, according to the OECD Skills Outlook 2021. 6 highly educated adults in 10 participate in learning, while only 2 in 10 adults with less education participate in adult learning opportunities.
In addition, employees in large companies tend to have more access to training opportunities than the self-employed, which is problematic given the growing importance of the platform economy.
The EU skills agenda will therefore need to address a range of equity considerations. Most of the answers to this problem will have to come from the Member States, as education is a policy area still firmly in the hands of the Member States. Nevertheless, impulses and coordination efforts emanate from Brussels.
One of the policy responses expected from the European Commission are “Individual Learning Accounts” (ILA). These should help to attach the right to training to individuals independent of their employer or employment status.
One of the problems that might be the hardest to solve is motivating people to train in the first place. OECD figures show that 80% of people who don’t take any training say it’s because they don’t want to and don’t see the need for it.
The task of implementing lifelong learning and meeting the ambitious goals of the Commission therefore remains daunting.
However, an EU official told EURACTIV that “EU member states now have unprecedented opportunities for EU support to invest in people, especially in skills upgrading and retraining that build resilience to economic shocks and that support socially just and inclusive transitions ”.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]