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Learning while working: how skills development can be supported through workplace learning

The more highly qualified people are, the more likely they are to participate in learning activities. However, people also tend do less lifelong learning as they grow older, irrespective of their qualification levels. This is especially true in countries where overall participation in lifelong learning is low. This general pattern emerges from various surveys, even though the Continuing training and Adult education surveys suggest that participation is higher than the lifelong learning indicator shows (1). Older low qualified workers are especially difficult to reach, even though they need lifelong learning most. Almost 60 % of Europe’s 74 million low-qualified citizens are over 45 years old. This is a matter of concern, as most of the 2020 workforce is already on the labour market and qualification demands are rising even in elementary occupations.

Towards knowledge- and skills-intensive jobs – future job opportunities and lifelong learning by occupation.

Source: Cedefop. Country workbooks (2011)

 

 

Overall figures mask disparities in training provision, not only across economic sectors but also across different occupational groups and types of contracts. Employees in the services sector, for instance, receive more training than those working in industry. Permanent staff benefit more from employer-paid training than employees on fixed-term contracts do. Given that transition is now a routine part of working life, continuing learning should be viewed as a necessity for which everyone bears responsibility. Employers tend to focus on the most highly qualified employees, and governments target low-skilled and other workers at disadvantage in the labour market, so medium-level skilled workers, who also need to plan their careers and learning to meet future skill demands, risk losing out.
The need to develop one’s skills and manage transitions between jobs will increase in line with the growing demand for care and household services, Europe’s environmental targets, changing technologies and work organisation and the trend towards longer working lives. According to the Adult education survey (2007), people participate in non-formal education and training mainly so that they can do their jobs better or advance their careers (43%), or both.
Hence, EU Member States have agreed that they will encourage workers to participate in continuing vocational training (CVET) to help meet the adult learning target. By 2020, 15 % of the population between 25 and 64 should participate in lifelong learning – a highly ambitious target for countries like Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania and Romania.

 

Incentives to invest in skills development

All countries provide incentives for continuing education and training, for instance by granting paid or unpaid temporary leave from work. The most common financial incentives for individuals are vouchers/individual learning accounts, loans and tax incentives. While loans are less popular in adult learning, vouchers/individual learning accounts are used more widely, reflecting the trend towards a demand-led approach. They are used either universally or they target specific groups. In more than half of the Member States tax incentives encourage individuals and enterprises or both to invest in education and training. Tax incentives and training funds are the most common means of encouraging enterprises to increase investment. Such schemes, which are levy-based, come about through voluntary arrangements between the social partners at sector level, or between governments and the social partners, and they secure a certain level of investment (ranging from 0.1 to 2.5% of the payroll). Incentives appear to have more effect on large and medium-sized enterprises than on small ones. Inequalities in access to training persist, especially for the low skilled. Collective bargaining at sectoral and company levels can address this issue by including principles of equal access.

 

CVET– a heterogeneous landscape

In response to the crisis, social dialogue helped to bring about measures to keep people in work and invest in skills, for instance by combining short-time work and training. These efforts were supported by dedicated public support, shared funding schemes and EU funds. Between 2009 and 2011, the Swedish government helped create a substantial number of adult VET training places through earmarked funding. To obtain this funding, municipalities were required to cooperate with the public employment service, social partners and other relevant parties to ensure synergy and coherence with other programmes.
In 2009, governments in the EU invested about EUR 27.6 billion, or 27 % more than in 2007, in training individuals with difficulties on the labour market (2). Fourteen countries increased public expenditure on training as part of an active labour market policy, giving it the highest share of all labour market measures (about 43% of the 2009 EU total; compared to 2007, an increase by 4.6 percentage points).

Source: Cedefop’s calculation, based on Eurostat, labour market policy database.

 

While in Denmark, for instance, labour market training comes under the same roof as other forms of continuing vocational training (3), most countries draw a clear line between responsibilities and governance in training as part of active labour market measures and responsibilities and governance in the continuing vocational education and training (CVET) sector.

In fact, CVET in the EU varies considerably in terms of governance, regulations, status, financing, quality assurance, providers and types of qualifications that can be acquired. CVET depends, even more so than IVET, on the country context: economic sectors, company size and the diversity of jobs denoted by the same occupational code; how occupations and qualifications are designed or whether access to occupations or functions is regulated, and if so to what degree. In the UK, where licenses to exercise jobs are less common than in countries like Austria or Germany, vocational qualifications are not necessarily seen as an entry requirement. This does not only influence the role of initial VET but also that of CVET, or rather VET for adults. The need to train newly recruited people depends on the learning outcomes of initial education. Evidence suggests that there is less need in countries with traditional apprenticeships. It is also worth noting that there are different definitions of the term ‘continuing (vocational education and) training’ (4) and of its boundaries with initial vocational education and training. Some countries – like Sweden – prefer to refer to the target groups, i.e. whether the training addresses young people or adults.

Most countries offer formal adult education and training programmes that lead either to the same qualifications as those offered in initial VET or to specially designed ones. Programmes are either open to young and mature learners or explicitly designed for adult learners or people in employment. In higher education, the workload is adjusted (ECTS credits) to ‘part-time’ students, or programmes are organised differently to suit people in employment: for instance as evening or weekend classes, block studies or blended learning (modern forms of distance and residential learning). In some countries, higher education institutions have cooperated with enterprises to develop ‘professional Bachelor programmes’ that include work-based learning elements. Generally, however, formal education and training accounts for only a small share of CVET.

Different types of CVET may be distinguished according to the purpose of the training (5). The objectives of CVET depend on countries’ general educational attainment level, their shares of low qualified people, their attitudes towards lifelong learning and their targets. Portugal, for instance, aims at raising the minimum attainment levels of its population to upper secondary education and training. The recently agreed Austrian lifelong learning strategy, for instance, includes several objectives that relate to CVET: generally, it aims at increasing LLL participation from 13.7 % in 2010 to 20 % by 2020; more specifically, it intends to increase the share of the low-qualified who participate in CVET during working hours from 5.6 % in 2007 to 15 % in 2020 and has set a target to reduce disparities in CVET participation between densely and less densely populated areas.

The social partners play a major role in CVET, which is characterised by a wide variety of different actors and responsibilities at different levels. They co-shape and help implement strategies and policies and (co)manage training funds or support enterprises or employees, as union learning representatives do in the UK. They also act as training providers, as is the case in Austria, for example, where the largest CVET providers are social partner institutions.

Employers are the most important providers of non-formal learning in many countries. Sixty per cent of Europe’s enterprises provide training for their employees. The commitment of businesses to training appears to reflect other trends: high shares in Denmark (85%), Austria (81%), Sweden (78%), Finland (77%), the Netherlands (75%) and France (74%) and low shares in a number of southern European countries and also in other countries where participation in LLL is low and/or expenditure on training for people with difficulties on the labour market is high.

Training provision also varies by company size. While large enterprises tend to have human resource units and systematically pursue training policies, SMEs have more limited capacities and resources for developing a training strategy. However, this link between size and training propensity does not apply in all countries.

While much of CVET organised by companies takes place in form of courses, the workplace itself plays a fundamental role as learning provider, and as a stimulus for further learning. With 16 % employee participation, on-the-job training is the second most attended form of continuing vocational training in EU enterprises (after CVT courses – 33%). On-the-job training contributes to upgrading skills that are particularly important for specific jobs or specific work environments, emphasising a learning-by-doing approach.

 

Source: Eurostat, Continuing Vocational Training Survey (CVTS3)

 

Learning at the workplace

The learning potential of a company depends on a number of related factors: human resources policies and training; the company’s participation in innovation processes; workers’ motivation to learn; and the opportunities that the working environment offers to learn on-the-job and apply knowledge, skills and competence. A work organisation that embeds learning in tasks helps to create a learning culture in the enterprise.

Challenging tasks, which involve decision-making, problem solving, judgement, peer learning and applying new knowledge, reflect the breadth and diversity of learning in the workplace. Reiterative work patterns not only inhibit learning but, in the long run, have a deskilling effect.

However, enterprises may lack the expertise to transform their work organisation into one that stimulates learning, and may require external support. National and sectoral skills development strategies would need to address this issue. To enable employees to become much more proficient in a particular field, work-based learning needs to be combined with more structured and systematic learning.

Adults need to have an adequate mix of knowledge, skills and competence, which will help them to remain in employment. Special attention should be paid to skills that are common to a wide range of jobs, lay the foundations for further learning and improve employability. Yet company training tends to focus on job-specific skills and not on improving employability through competences that can be transferred between different working environments and even occupations. However, a number of national programmes and sectoral initiatives are encouraging enterprises to provide their staff with the key competences that help them adjust to changes in work organisation and open the way to further learning. An example of such a scheme is like the Flemish Competence Agenda 2007, jointly approved by the government and the social partners.

 

Linking innovation policies and skills development

A lack of awareness of training needs is a fundamental barrier to skill development in enterprises. As the Continuing training survey revealed, most enterprises that do not provide training do not see the need to do so and believe that staff is adequately skilled for work.

To be more effective, financial incentives and training provision will need to be accompanied by adequate support for the assessment of skills needs at the enterprise and sector levels. In a number of countries, different support initiatives have been established to help enterprises identify their training needs, develop a working environment that stimulates learning and design and deliver learning opportunities (example of ‘Skillnets’ in Ireland, industry-led partnership). Businesses will also need to be made aware of the returns on their investment in training. Increasing employees’ skills makes it easier for companies to adapt to change and to compete in new markets. Employees might be more likely to stimulate and implement innovation. As the evidence shows, employer-provided training enhances process and product innovation and growth and productivity. Raising the proportion of employees trained by one percentage point increases productivity by around 0.8 %. Although this ‘model’ cannot be automatically applied to all enterprises, the results indicate a clear correlation between training provided by enterprises and returns in terms of productivity.

Narrow business strategies and routine in work organisation lead to limited demand for further learning. Often, the need for training arises when enterprises deliver new products or services, adopt new technology, production methods and working processes or transform their work organisation. Policy actions and incentives need to encourage employers to raise their game in terms of technology, innovation in goods and services, market strategies and work organisation, and as a result, increase awareness of skill needs and the demand for training. Training policies and strategies that promote innovation in enterprises should be brought together. The report on ‘Ambition 2020: World Class Skills and jobs for the UK’ establishes a close relationship between innovation in enterprises and the professional development of staff (UK Commission for employment and skills, 2009). Hence, training policies and strategies that promote innovation in enterprises need to be brought together. The economic downturn reinforces the need for synergies between policy measures.

 

Joint commitment for workplace learning

Transferring knowledge, skills and competence acquired in training to daily working practice may be a challenge. Companies, particularly SMEs, do not always consider training relevant to their specific business needs and work organisation. Training providers would need to adopt a customer-led approach that matches the needs of enterprises and employers, overcomes constraints linked to size and work organisation, and responds to emerging skill demands and sectoral changes.

Any policy on skill development, if it is to be successful, needs to address the quality and relevance of the training provided to enterprises as well as the competences of trainers. An in-company trainer is a changing role that might require a new set of knowledge, skills and competence. At the sector and national levels, a number of initiatives have defined minimum competence requirements for trainers and aim at providing professional development opportunities. This is challenging because training and coaching tasks in enterprises are often performed by employees who are not professional ‘trainers’ but rather skilled workers.

Employers may need support to develop strategies for skill and business development and to adapt their work organisations so that they promote innovation and skills. This is especially true of SMEs. Training strategies need to consider company size and the regional or local context in which companies operate and the actual employment they create. Given that small firms face the challenge of keeping up with large firms, they could benefit from public policy, consultancy and cooperation with, for instance, training providers from the formal system. Encouraging cooperation among companies to help SMEs develop joint training systems could be another option.

To make continuing training more relevant and responsive, diverse policy measures, sources of expertise, financial incentives and learning services need to be combined and responsibilities shared. Better coordination of existing resources would be necessary to tailor skill development initiatives to employers’ needs, while personalising services according to the needs and circumstances of individuals. Social dialogue has an important role in ensuring access to guidance and continuing training at key transition points during working life and to create the appropriate conditions for work-based learning. Employers, trade unions and public authorities have a major responsibility for creating the conditions in the workplace that allow workers to broaden their competences. Denmark’s lifelong strategy, for instance, builds on the consensus that lifelong learning is the shared responsibility of employers, employees and public authorities, as the Danish VET in Europe report states. All players accept joint responsibility for maintaining high levels of participation in adult education and continuing training and sustained competence development at work. Part of this strategy is upgrading key competences and job-related skills.

Overall, the commitment of a wide range of players at the national, regional, local and sectoral levels is needed to address imbalances in the social, educational and age profiles of those benefiting from learning opportunities in the workplace.

 

Valuing workplace learning

Seen from the perspective of individuals, flexible routes and recognition are key to encouraging them to take up learning. They need to see clear benefits. The knowledge, skills and competence they acquire need to have a real value: a better or a new job, the opportunity to pursue further learning without having to start from scratch, the chance to combine their qualifications with complementary skills within a similar or different study field.

So far, the value of these qualifications is often limited, as countries may have several VET qualification subsystems in parallel: for instance, the qualifications that young people acquire in formal education; specifically designed qualifications for adults, those acquired through validation and those through labour market measures. Recent policy developments, however, indicate that qualification frameworks are opening up and integrating qualifications that people acquire in CVET and through validation. The take-up of Finland’s competence-based qualifications system, for instance, and developments in Portugal, where qualifications acquired through validation are being integrated in the NQF are interesting examples of a more flexible system. Another interesting example is the Danish lifelong strategy. It aims at creating a more flexible and individualised education and training system which also covers non-formal and informal learning and pays particular attention to transfer between pathways, guidance and counselling and validation of prior learning.

But whether or not the education and training system is flexible, there is little value for a company in having a better skilled workforce or for employees in having developed their skills, if no use is made of those skills.

 

For further reading:

 

        

(1) This is mainly due to the different reference periods: four weeks prior to the EU Labour force survey used for the LLL benchmark; 12 months for the adult education and the continuing training survey.

(2) Unemployed, employed at risk of job loss and inactive who would like to enter the labour market but are disadvantaged in some way.

(3) VET in Europe country report Germany.

(4) Continuing training: Education or training after initial education and training or after entry into working life aimed at helping individuals to: improve or update their knowledge and/or skills; acquire new skills for a career move or retraining; continue their personal or professional development.
Cedefop. Terminology of European education and training policy. A selection of 100 key terms. Luxembourg, 2008.

(5) see for instance, Germany’s VET in Europe report.

Posted on 24/10/2011  | Last update on 25/10/2011 Back to list

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