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The state of play of skills in Europe

Epale - 23/04/2022

The European Union has been investing significant resources to make sure that citizens are equipped with the right skills and competences.

The state of play of skills in Europe

The European discourse on skills has been strongly rooted in employment policies. And it cannot be otherwise, considering the rhythm at which market needs are evolving, promoting and swallowing change at the fastest pace. However, looking at education, training and lifelong learning beyond jobs will increase workers’ competitiveness more than targeted policies.

Skills agenda

The need for a unified "charter" of skills in Europe was so intense that it gave life, in 2016, to the very first European Skills Agenda. This innovative instrument sought to address the need to increase the relevance of education and training systems to the needs of our societies. It is pervaded by a strong emphasis on the integration of refugees and migrants, the recognition and validation of non-formal and informal learning as bearer of soft skills', the acquisition of life skills and the support for quality vocational education and training (VET). Its main focus? The idea that all individuals could be equipped with the right skills for the right job.

Surfing on the success of this initiative, the European Commission promoted a revision of the European Skills Agenda. By 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck Europe and made the case for a more holistic approach to education and training. The twin digital and green transitions provided fertile ground for a revision. The revision came as a joint effort of the education and the employment worlds, testifying of ambitious objectives for both the education and the training sector to be achieved by 2025. It integrated the Skills agenda in the European Education Area and aligned it with other policy provisions, such as the European Pillar of Social Rights’ first principle on education, training and lifelong learning. The first Skills Agenda was heavily designed to meet labour market needs: with the revision - and other measures - it will look at learners’ needs as well.

The European Pillar of Social Rights

In 2017, the European Pillar of Social Rights set out 20 key principles and rights essential for fair and well-functioning labour markets and social protection systems. Hold on, why are we mentioning a pillar of social rights in an article dedicated to skills? Because for the first time the European Pillar of Social Rights stated that:

Everyone has the right to quality and inclusive education, training and life-long learning in order to maintain and acquire skills that enable them to participate fully in society and manage successfully transitions in the labour market.

The idea of a right to lifelong learning was a formidable step forward, one that could potentially pave the way for a true inclusive revolution in education and training systems. The 2021 Action Plan brings forward such ambitions, especially when it comes to upskilling and reskilling the European adult population for the Twin Transitions, aiming to achieve a target of 60% of adults in education or training by 2030.

The Action Plan is a step in the right direction but rests on an ambiguous vision of lifelong learning which is not (only) not the effort to see one’s skills upgraded, but rather a grander and holistic vision of life outside one’s job. How to get out of this comfort zone, you ask? For instance, a first step in changing perspective is valuing the richness and diversity of the European education and training landscape, without limiting it to labour market needs.

Individual Learning Accounts and Micro-Credentials

The latest policy measures to address skills and the way they are acquired and valued are the European Commission Proposals for Council Recommendations on Individual Learning Accounts and for a European Approach to Micro-credentials. There is a clear ambition to foster lifelong learning through these two new initiatives, one that can bring about a broadened access to learning opportunities for all. The synergies between the two proposals are numerous and promising, however, these will depend on their implementation at national and institutional level. In fact, the Commission's proposals seem to require a shift towards a lifelong learning paradigm where supporting the individual’s potential is the key guiding principle.

Education and skills beyond jobs

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that education provisions, if designed and implemented for education’s sake, will have a deeper and larger impact on all sectors of human activity that if carried out with competing needs in mind. This is to say that education policies should not be looking to satisfy the (labour) market needs, but rather look inwards at what learners’ need. In turn, this learner-centred approach will meet the expectations and targets set for the employment sector. Besides, there is a revolutionary thrust that permeates education policies centred on individuals: the idea that education and training can contribute to societal development through the fulfilment of individuals' potential.

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