One key action within the European Commission’s New Skills Agenda for Europe - Working together to strengthen human capital, employability and competitiveness, was the Skills Guarantee. You can click here to read EPALE Thematic Coordinator David Mallows's article on the new Adult Skills Agenda.
The ‘low skills-poor jobs trap’
Acknowledging the precarious (labour) situation of low skills and/or low-qualified adults, the Skills Guarantee aims to break the circle of the ‘low skills-poor jobs trap’. This is a situation where low-skilled and/or low-qualified adults conduct unskilled work which offers few opportunities to improve their skills, and so they jeopardise their employability. The Skills Guarantee helps break this circle by having low-skilled adults acquire a minimum level of literacy, numeracy and digital skills and progress towards an upper secondary qualification.
Increasing the participation of adults in education and training is key in providing a Skills Guarantee and upskilling adults. This has already been on the agenda for years. The Memorandum on Lifelong Learning’s first key message even included the term ‘guarantee’. The objective on Key Message 1 ‘New basic skills for all’ was: Guarantee universal and continuing access to learning for gaining and renewing the skills needed for sustained participation in the knowledge society. And yet Labour Force Survey statistics show that, in the last ten years, the participation rate in education and training lasting at least 4 weeks has only increased slightly from 16.1% (2004) to 16.6% (2015).
What is new and different now?
- The skills guarantee is more concrete in terms of outcomes. The guarantee is not about participation in education and training, but about reaching specific learning outcomes and making a change in peoples’ lives.
- The Skills Guarantee is more concrete in terms of target groups. The guarantee specifically calls upon Member States to support individuals, who left the initial education and training system without an upper secondary qualification, to access upskilling opportunities to improve their literacy, numeracy and digital skills or to acquire a qualification at EQF level 4 (upper secondary qualification) or equivalent.
- The Skills Guarantee proposed a three-step approach:
- a skills assessment, enabling low-qualified adults to identify their existing skills and their need to upskill;
- design and delivery of an education and training offer, tailored to the specific situation of each individual, building on their existing skills;
- validation and recognition of the skills acquired through the personalised upskilling pathway.
The ‘innovative’ part is the pathway approach consisting of a linked series of targeted interventions that would improve and consolidate the support for this group and lead to the development of the necessary skills and qualifications.
How will the Skills Guarantee increase participation?
On the question of how the Skills Guarantee will increase participation and reach out to the target groups, no clear answer can be provided. The recommendation acknowledges that in many countries, supported by European funds (such as the ESF), programmes and initiatives focus on specific target groups. Member States are asked to improve coordination between different policies, programmes and projects in order to establish pathways to get adults to re-engage in education and training, assess their skills, offer tailored provision and validate what is learned so that the new skills contribute to their employability profile.
The recommendation states that there is scope to make more efficient use of Europe’s human capital across the life course, and indeed to improve the Union’s human capital by raising overall levels of skills. National and EU-level resources need to be mobilised to this end.
The Skills Guarantee: next year more developed plans at national level
The recommendation does not provide indications of increased participation levels or increased skills levels. The only verifiable target is that the recommendation calls on Member States to prepare, within one year from its adoption, an action plan for implementation. This should include coordination arrangements, priority target groups identified at national level, and the financial resources made available.
In my view, it is important that impetus is given to the upskilling of adults. Although there are problems with using the terms ‘skills’ (how broad should we interpret this?) and ‘guarantee’ (what is in fact guaranteed?), from a policy-making perspective I understand the use of these two terms:
- ‘Skills’ relates strongly to economic benefit (although discussions on skills often relate to transversal skills as being highly valued by employers) and hint to the economic urgency to take action in the flight of Europe’s economic recovery after the crisis.
- The word ‘guarantee’ has the connotation of being forceful, it echoes the words from the ‘Youth Guarantee’ and is associated with a very practical component (as was the case in the Youth Guarantee: ‘provide an intervention within four months of leaving formal education or becoming unemployed’).
As such, the Skills Guarantee might have the potential to have upskilling and lifelong learning again high on the political agenda in Member States as it is they who need to take action. On the other hand, the lack of targets (for instance on participation or educational attainment) or additional funding lines to support Member States (as was the case with the Youth Employment Initiative), suggest that the Recommendation on the Skills Guarantee might fail to provide this impetus. One prominent factor for success is that the coming year decision makers, working in adult learning, practitioners, NGOs, employment offices, and in fact – the audience of EPALE – are engaged in drafting national trustworthy action plans for implementation. Only then, the Skills Guarantee will be given teeth!
Simon Broek has been involved in several European research projects on education, labour market issues and insurance business. He advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and European Agencies on issues related to education policies, lifelong learning, and labour market issues, and is Managing Partner at Ockham Institute of Policy Support.