The current economic crisis broke more than a year ago. Though the effect on the various national economies has been uneven, no European country has been spared. Unemployment in the Euro zone is at a ten-year high, and no sector seems to be immune.
Reacting to the crisis: keeping people at work, offering better training
Together with the Swedish presidency, Cedefop has identified and examined the main policies that are being implemented across Europe in response to the crisis. Measures taken so far include:
- Subsidies for recruitment/job creation have been linked to training of specific groups (such as the long-term unemployed)
- Providing funding to employers to take on young people (work-based learning)
- Providing training subsidies to employers to retain employees
- Schemes for short-term work accompanied by training
- Schemes for part-time work alternating with training
- Subsidies allowing employees to train at the workplace
- Opening up formal vocational /higher education programmes
- New partnerships between sectors and regional or national authorities, or between VET providers and enterprises
- Information campaigns for individuals and companies, in particular SMEs
- Higher education allowances and grants; lowering of education and training fees
The European institutions have also helped Member States by lowering conditional requirements and levels of mandatory co-financing for use of the European Social Funds. Such finance has mainly been allocated to adult learning (retraining and upskilling of workers and the unemployed) and apprenticeships.
May of these actions have been undertaken through new partnerships, notably between empoloyment and education/training ministries, regional authorities and public employment services. There is a new sense of urgency for joint action between the State, economic sectors and the social partners.
But its not all good news. In some Member States, not only companies but education ministries have cut their budgets; as a result teachers have been particularly hard hit.
Measures to contain unemployment have been partly successful - while GDP has fallen by 4,9% employment decreased by 1.9%. But some groups, such as the low-skilled, have been disproportionately affected. Most worryingly, youth unemployment is growing faster than general unemployment. In some countries it is three times as high - even though this segment of the population already participates in large numbers in education and training.
The danger of losing this generation may be the single most important argument for an accelerated, concerted effort to modernise VET systems, and to design and implement common EU tools - efforts on which Member States and the European Union have already embarked.
Beyond the crisis: our future needs are already here
The latest employment statistics and forecasts - including recent Eurostat figures - indicate that the general trends foreseen two years ago are still in place: higher levels of educational attainment still mean higher employability.
In the past year, people with lower educational attainment have suffered an even more rapid loss of jobs than was the case before the crisis. Conversely, the employment rates of people with tertiary education continued to rise even through the second quarter of 2009.
But we should be careful about what conclusions we draw: this may simply mean that many highly-education people are taking on jobs for which they are overqualified - a common phenomenon in recessions which, if not corrected, eventually leads to slower growth.
In any case, qualifications cannot simply keep rising. They must become much more targeted. We have not always been successful in producing the skills profiles and competence the economy actually needs. Europe needs to find the right balance between raising the level of skills (especially with more vocational skills), widening skills across occupations, and offering skills that allow people to move across sectors. Moreover, training should cover every aspect of a skills profile for employability: generic skills, transferable occupational skills and specialised skills.
If training policy is to improve the prospects of Europe's citizens, economies and societies in the medium and longer term, where should it focus? Cedefop has worked intensively on this question, and some directions are already clear.
- Closing the gap between skills supplied and skills demanded. Despite rising unemployment, 4 million vacancies remained unfilled in 2008. The skills mismatch is one of the most intractable problems of the European labour market, and one to which Cedefops skill forecasts attempt to provide a partial answer. Europe must continue working on the complex task of anticipating skills. Rapid technological changes makes forecasting a particularly difficult task, but also make it even more necessary.
- Work organisations should be encouraged to make the best use of their workers' knowledge and skills adnd to create learning environments. A learning environment favours innovation and creativity, a major engine of economic growth.
- Improving womens activity rates. Though they are now better qualified than men, women are less likely to join the labour market. This represents a loss of talent which we can ill afford in the long run. Women and men alike should be encouraged to consider jobs regardless of traditional gender associations.
- To recognise and value all skills, two processes are necessary: validation of knowledge and skils acquired at work and in life, and guidance and counselling. These processes must work well together (cf. article on validation and guidance in this issue). EU policy should find more ways of linking them effectively.
- Common European tools in vocational education and training should continue to be developed and implemented. By making it possible to compare systems, credits and skills they build mutual trust and thus encourage worker and learner mobility (cf article on launch of EQARF-ECVET in this issue). All citizens should be made aware of the opportunities they have.
- Some countries are encouraging the development of entrepreneurship skills, and other measures to support self-employment. In addition, generic skills are being taken seriously as a way to improve employability. Many countries now fund the development of generic skills such as communication, information technology and problem-solving.
- It is also imperative to develop green skills, which affect a very wide spectrum of jobs at all levels and across many sectors. Improving them will not only raise employment and competitiveness but also safeguard the environment our physical future.
- Partnerships between education and the labour market should continue to grow: as they have helped to cushion the crisis, they can also pave the way to better training provision and skills development in the future.
Ask not what Europe can do for training... ask what training can do for Europe
The crisis offers us an opportunity to focus on what lifelong learning really means and how much it can help our economies and societies. It is time to overcome the divisions between vocational, general and higher education, and integrate them in a single process of lifelong learning.
Europes goals are wide-ranging: international competitiveness; optimum use of human resources; research and innovation; social cohesion, including avoidance of polarisation and the successful integration of marginal groups; greater integration among the Member States themselves; the intelligent management of demographic decline.
Education and training represent societys investment in people - in their energy, abilities, skills and ambitions. Recognising and targeting skills and knowledge, strengthening mutual trust between actors in the labour market, and providing new forms of financing to encourage learning at all levels will contribute substantially to all of the considerable challenges Europe faces.
This text was based on the speeches and presentations made at the conference by Cedefop Director Aviana Bulgarelli and Deputy Director Christian Lettmayr.