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The 2016 Supply of Labour report: the high-skilled learn more, the low-skilled learn less

minn Simon BROEK
Lingwa: EN
Document available also in: FR DE NL

Every two years the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau), a government agency which conducts research into the social aspects of all areas of government policy, publishes the Supply of Labour (Aanbod van arbeid) report. The 2016 edition is dealing with working, caring and learning in a flexible labour market. The report makes use of the Labour Supply Panel (Arbeidsaanbodpanel), a long-term survey of approximately 4,500 working and non-working people in the Netherlands. This blog provides some conclusions and reflections specifically related to adult learning.

  • Combining working, caring and learning: Although the government wants people to work more, care more and learn more, there are limits to the extent to which these activities can be combined, in terms of both physical and time constraints. This is especially true for older workers who receive less training, exhibit less labour mobility and are often in poorer health than their younger counterparts; and low-skilled workers who also receive little training, either formal or informal.

  • Participation in training remained unchanged: What is even more worrisome is that despite the importance attributed to training in government policy no clear developments can be observed with regard to learning: around 40% of workers had taken part in training in the two years preceding the survey, and this proportion remained fairly constant over the whole period 2004-2014. Groups with a weak labour market position (low-skilled workers, older workers, flexiworkers and people with health conditions) receive relatively little training.

  • Lifelong learning does not yet appear to be getting off the ground for low-skilled workers: It was found that people who receive lots of formal training are also the people who learn a lot during their work. Formal and informal learning are thus not complementary, and a lack of formal training is not compensated by informal learning. Training is often linked to changes in the work. High-skilled workers receive training much more often (57%) than low-skilled workers (24%).

Finally, not everyone has the same possibilities to combine working, caring and learning. Some groups, such as employees with flexible contracts, temporary contracts (used not only by career starters but also by people late in their career), low-skilled and older workers have more difficulties combining working, caring and learning and experience less job security and often a lower life satisfaction.

Ring the alarm?

The report provides a worrisome trend in the chances of employees to get support in combining working, caring and learning. Especially with regard to learning, the Matthew effect applies where "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer." Those who can afford it (high-skilled) have possibilities to participate in learning; those who can’t but are most in need (e.g. low-skilled) have less possibilities to participate in learning.

Given the increasing flexibility of the labour market; the increase of people’s own responsibility for their career; the acknowledged necessity to continue updating/upgrading skills and competences; the emphasis in policy documents on sustainable employment; and the recent criticism of the Count of Audit on the Policy to Tackling functional illiteracy, much more is needed in terms of policies than what is currently in place in the Netherlands.

Hopefully, this report rings the alarm, in the Netherlands, but maybe as well in other countries: are structures in place to facilitate learning for those in need or for those already in an advantageous position.


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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