Cedefop Director James Calleja warned that talent and speed of change are challenging both businesses and vocational education and training (VET) at a meeting on bridging the skills gap organised by the Employers’ Group of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), the Bulgarian EU Presidency and the Association of Bulgarian Employers, in Sofia on 22 March.

Workplaces and VET schools and colleges are constantly challenged by changes in the way we learn and work. Mr Calleja noted: ‘Training providers, like employers, are threatened by the speed of innovation. For both sectors, speed is a more challenging factor than digitalisation, big data analytics, the internet of things and advanced robotics. These developments are visible and manageable. But the speed of change is not. The need for the sectors of education and employment to join forces is more critical than ever.’

The high-level meeting was addressed by the Vice President of the Republic of Bulgaria Iliana Iotova, the Deputy Minister for Labour and Social Policy Zornitsa Rusinova, the President-elect of EESC’s Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship Christa Schweng and the President of the EESC Employers’ Group Poland Jacek Krawczyk. Cedefop Governing Board members Barbara Dorn and Gerhard Riemer played an active role at the meeting.

In his presentation, Mr Calleja stressed that better personal lives and better working conditions lead to more productivity, more profit and happier employers. If there is a proliferation of employers this is added value to education and training and employment.

Recipe for success

Quoting statistical data from Cedefop’s European skills and jobs survey, he said that ‘preventing technological unemployment requires the right mix of digital and soft skills, better labour market intelligence and career guidance, upskilling and reskilling, particularly of low-skilled adults and the unemployed, and education that caters for personal and professional growth at the same time.’

The creation, transformation and replacement of jobs that Cedefop underlines in its briefing note on people, machines, robots and skills complements OECD’s prediction of 9% of jobs being displaced, 70% of tasks automated and 25% of jobs transformed in the near future. Mr Calleja argued that the way we teach must change: ‘A knowledge-based approach has been dominating our education system for over 200 years. We need new systems based on the acquisition of knowledge, skills and competence that will help young people and adults compete with machines and secure jobs that machines cannot perform.’

According to Mr Calleja, ‘it is time for workplaces to become learning environments as well, which implies that training providers need to spend more time in industry, and employers to engage in education and training policies and curriculum design.’

If we bridge the two sectors we must also ensure that traffic goes both ways. An important factor that will determine the success of this approach is career guidance, which Mr Calleja said must be a joint venture of the public and private sectors.

Forecasting limitations

Employers stressed the need for work-based learning and for future employees to possess soft skills. In their view, skills forecasting has its limitations due to the rapid changes that labour market is experiencing through technological developments. Shorter periods of skills anticipation are valid but emphasis should be put on the need for reskilling, upskilling and lifelong learning.

Governments should shoulder the financial burden of lifelong learning while employers would be ready to support such initiatives if skills strategies aim at a better trained workforce. The investment of over EUR 60 billion per year in training by German social partners is an example of how social partners can make a difference in a political environment conducive to lifelong learning.