Reflections on adult learning and career development

EPALE Thematic Coordinator Simon Broek shares his thoughts on the role of adult learning in career development

Career development and adult learning.


EPALE Thematic Coordinator Simon Broek shares his thoughts on the role of adult learning in career development


We are well aware that in nowadays employees do not have the same job with the same employer throughout their working life. Also, with the rapid pace of (technological) developments, people cannot rely solely on the knowledge, skills and competences acquired in initial schooling.

Hence, in order to function in society and in work we all need regular updating of our knowledge, skills and competences. In this blog post I would like to explore this issue and discuss adult learning and career development.


Low-qualified gap and career development

In general, adult learning within careers comes into play in two circumstances:

  1. When something goes wrong in a career and there is some kind of skills deficit. The person becomes unemployed and needs job seeking training, updating of their computer skills or re-training for other jobs.
  2. When something goes well in a career and the employer invests in his staff’s skills development to stay – as a company – up to date in the competitive market.

Generally, investments in the second circumstance are much higher compared to those in the first. Also the source is very different. While in the second, the main source are the employers; in the first circumstance individuals and the government (through public employment services) are responsible for covering the costs.

Also, when it comes to the second circumstance, there is a difference between low- and medium-/high- qualified personnel: high-qualified staff generally receive more career-related training compared to low qualified. If this is not enough for inequality, those who are high qualified generally have more means to engage in self-directed learning pathways (for instance doing an additional education programme) and they are therefore better equipped when something goes wrong in their career.

Adult learning and career development therefore shows a very unequal picture when it comes to the difference between lower and higher qualified personnel. Those who are lower qualified receive less in-career training, they are more vulnerable for becoming unemployed, they have less means for funding additional training, and often have to co-finance solving skills deficits to re-engage in the labour market.

Adult learning and career development therefore seems to reinforce inequality rather than solve it!

This begs the question:

How can we improve this situation and are there any good examples of policies that make adult learning and career development a happy marriage for the low-qualified as well?

It is essential that for all employees the work environment is also a learning environment. This means that there should be incentives to learn (for instance possible career progression), that learning possibilities are offered (courses, non-formal exchanges), and finally that the work tasks incentivise employees to continue learning. This last aspect points to the issue that low-qualified workers are often enrolled in jobs that have a limited number of work tasks and are quite repetitive, not stimulating them to learn new skills.

This means that from an employer perspective, more attention needs to be placed on seeing the employee as a whole person that needs to be intellectually nurtured while working, and less as an entity with whom they exchange services for money.

From a government perspective, this means that they need to invest more in prevention of skill deficits than repairing them when people become unemployed. This can be done by supporting employers in setting up learning environments and by providing employees with regular career and skills check-ups.


Example in the Netherlands: development counselling and lifelong development

In the Netherlands, experiments are taking place with development counselling for 45+ workers (Tijdelijke Subsidieregeling Ontwikkeladvies Vijfenveertigplussers). The experiment takes into account both the support to companies (and their managers) in establishing a better environment for learning and career development for employees, and the provision of check-ups for employees. Upon request, employees receive a subsidy to engage in counselling (600 EUR) and managers can receive a subsidy for additional training (300 EUR) to support employees in their career orientation and development.

The experiment runs until July 2019 so we still have to wait for any results and lessons learned.

The policy developments luckily do not wait for the evaluation. Recently a new government policy was published devoted to Lifelong Development (Leven Lang Ontwikkelen). This policy firmly states that a positive and strong learning culture needs to be developed in which all are stimulated and supported to take ownership on their own learning development, especially those that are most vulnerable. Read more about this policy (in Dutch).

Are there similar policies in your countries that touch upon this issue? Share in the comments below!

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.

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