Companies wish to improve employees’ skills for a specific job; employees have an interest in developing skills that can generally raise their career and employment prospects. But can these potentially conflicting goals be balanced? Encouraging a company culture that make it easier for citizens to keep learning, and promotes corporate responsibility and social cohesion is a smart strategy for government. The success stories that were collected in Cedefop's recent publication, "Learning while working: Success stories in workplace learning" illustrate some of the ingenious solutions that have been devised by social partners working together with national, regional and local authorities. Here, Rocío Lardinois de la Torre, Cedefop’s project manager for in-company training, talks about the conclusions of the study.
The action plan promoting adult learning (2007-2010) was announced before the current economic and financial crisis. Why should the European Union continue to emphasise adult learning in a time of serious youth unemployment?
The main reason for issuing the Adult Learning Action Plan was that although the Member States had achieved a lot of progress in lifelong learning strategies, very strong inequalities persist in learning participation for adults. Low-skilled adults have very few opportunities to participate in learning, and so do older workers. At any rate, young people are also included in adult learning strategies that give access to learning opportunities.
Is everyone in Europe on the same page as to what adult training means? Do they all define adult learning in the same way? And do these differences affect policy?
The differences between Member States are not so much in how adult learning or adults are defined – they are in how developed their strategies of lifelong learning are.
There are three groups of countries: those that have very strong lifelong learning strategies – that coordinate policies linked to adult learning, such as health, education, and social inclusion. These are countries where the social partners are very committed to offering learning opportunities to adults in the workplace, and where there is a strong coordination of services and strong legislation for adult learning.
The second group are countries in which strong developments are taking place in terms of legislation and provision of guidance to adults, but efforts are still needed in terms of coordination.
The third group of countries is one in which adults, especially low-skilled adults, have limited opportunities for learning. Here, there is still a lot to be done to give them access such opportunties.
Have you found that low- skilled workers lack learning opportunities because of workplace prejudice? Or are the workers themselves hesitant to enter into training at the workplace?
It’s both. On the one side, low-skilled workers very often have bad experiences of education, and are not always aware of what they need in terms of skill development. But they also see that the enterprise is not that much interested in them. Enterprises have tended to focus on those they consider the ‘talented’ employees, those from whom they think they could get a better return for investment.
But now the workplace is changing, work processes are changing, and low-skilled workers need also to be given training if they are to cope with those changes. We have seen in the report that the workplace is strategically a very good place not only to provide learning opportunities to low-skilled workers but also to motivate them - to reach them.
You are referring to your report for Cedefop on success stories of adult learning in the workplace. Did you feel that there was a common thread linking succesful companies? Or was everybody very different?
We were looking at workplace learning from two perspectives: the efforts of public authorities to implement strategies that will support companies to develop training – for instance, helping them with needs analysis, or to define training plans, or reaching small and medium enterprises that are not providing training – in other words, providing the infrastructure that allows enterprises to offer learning opportunities.
Then we looked at what’s happening within the enterprises, which is for example how the social partners are involved. But another point is these companies do not consider training from a narrow perspective, only providing training opportunities at a certain point. It’s important to take into account the work organisation itself – to change work processes in a way that offers workers the autonomy and opportunity to develop their skills and to apply them in the workplace.
But the most significant trend that we found in analysing this data was the conflicting agendas of public authorities and companies. Public authorities want to focus on key competences and low-skilled workers, whereas companies are more interested in more narrow skills, on working paths, and as I said, on their talented employees.
What role can the social partners play?
Developing opportunities for low-skilled workers is a key role for social partners. In fact, some of the successes in the report have resulted have been undertaken by social partners, especially trade unions. We’ve seen how trade unions in different countries are developing guidance services in which workers themselves try to encourage their peers to undertake learning.
What do you think will be the greatest challenges for adult learning in the next decade?
One of the big challenges will still be to increase participation in learning opportunities for the low-skilled. For this it is extremely important to involve enterprises – after all we spend a third of our lives at the workplace.
For a long time, companies have focused on very narrow competences that are needed for the implementation of working tasks. But it is equally important to develop, within enterprises, key competences: not just basic skills, but also the capacity to work in teams, for instance. For me, the workplace will still be a strong actor for adult learning in the future.