EPALE Thematic Coordinator Gina Ebner reflects on why there may be some misunderstandings between the non-formal adult learning sector and the private sector.
Some years ago I attended a conference in Germany, where a representative of a large car company had been invited to speak. He explained their approach to HR management and training, which was very impressive. In the Q&A session, someone asked if he saw the possibility of a cooperation between this company and adult education centres. His answer was very polite, but also clear: what his company needed and what adult education centres had to offer were too different, so no.
This is, of course, not true for many adult education centres, especially those working in continuing vocational education and training (CVET). They have a tradition in providing in-company trainings based on needs analyses and tailor-made offers. As far as I can tell, there are also quite a few trainings for civil society and NGOs. So, what is the problem between non-formal adult education and companies?
For some non-formal adult education providers, cooperation with companies might not be part of their educational mission. Some misconceptions also persist. This is more a reference to the situation of German-speaking countries, but I would be interested to hear about experiences in other countries in the comments. Adult education centres are often perceived as offering macramé and pottery classes, maybe Italian for seniors and yoga for middle-aged women. The fact that these prejudices exist does not say anything about the quality of staff, trainers and teachers or courses. In fact, many of the language trainers that I knew, when I was working as one, used taught at adult education centres as well as companies (as a colleague once said to me: the company trainings I do for the wallet, the others for my soul).
I tend to think that the incompatibility is based more on cultural difference rather than factual or other reasons. So, why should we bother? I’d argue that it brings benefits for companies and non-formal adult learning.
We had an inspiring discussion during the last Lifelong Learning Week in Brussels. During a visit to Cité des métiers, a guidance centre in Brussels, we explored how guidance centres can work with employers to raise awareness of the need for learning at the workplace. ‘Employers need to understand that not investing in learning at the workplace can actually put their employees at risk – for example if they don’t understand the instructions at work,’ said Jolien Klein Wassink, advisor on the Leren en Werken programme in the Netherlands, which promotes workplace learning and provides career guidance.
Our member, the Swiss Federation for Adult Learning, has a number of excellent examples for cooperation with businesses, from training for SMEs to a very interesting initiative called GO: Upskilling on the job. Based on a funding priority by the federal council in 2017, this initiative is meant to promote the learning of basic skills in companies. Learning content includes, among others, understanding instructions at work, creating work plans and more. The programme addresses a wide range of basic skills, from oral and written communication to everyday mathematics and ICT skills. Importantly, the content is based on actual situations that employees encounter at the workplace.
Such trainings are an important basis for fighting functional literacy – many people who are concerned are in fact working, and workplace learning is one of the key ways for outreach. In other words, everybody wins.
So, what is necessary for potential cooperation with companies?
- Adapting the language. I’ll give an example from my personal experience. Many years ago I had a job interview for a large company that was looking for an HR developer. For the most part it went well, but at the end, I made a crucial mistake – I started talking about the value of learning. The HR manager looked at me slightly horrified and said that for her, the bottom line was to have a return on investment. This taught me that I need to keep my idealistic expectations in check when it comes to working with companies – use their language, dress up in a business suit and sell your offer.
- Flexibility is key. No company is going to accept a general course at the same time each week. Everything needs to be tailor-made and based on needs analysis, requirements analysis and evaluation. Non-formal adult education has plenty of experience with this, but probably in a different context.
Let me know what you think! Do my reflections mirror your experiences? Have you worked with companies? Leave a comment below.
Gina Ebner is the Secretary-General of the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA) and also EPALE's Thematic Coordinator for Learner Support.