Purely occupation-specific skills are not enough for vocational education and training (VET) learners to adapt to new life situations and career shifts, manage change, take initiative and risk, innovate, and engage in further learning; they also require key competences.

The 2020 European skills agendaCouncil recommendation on VET and Osnabrück declaration on VET emphasise the importance of key competences that lay the foundation for resilience, lifelong learning, employability, social inclusion, active citizenship and personal development, and support green and digital transition.

The overall objective of the project is to promote key competences in VET in Europe through research and evidence-based policy advice.

A distinctive feature of key competences in VET is that they are not directly linked to a specific qualification but can be used flexibly in different situations, including lifelong learning and the labour market. In practice the lines are often blurred and vary by economic sector. For example, using foreign languages (multilingual competence) may not be a standard requirement for road construction technicians, while most qualifications in the tourism industry require knowledge of at least one foreign language. In the former case, multilingual is a key competence sensu stricto; in the latter, it is a key competence that overlaps with vocational competence.

While all key competences are important, Cedefop research focuses on key competences in line with the EU priorities.

Study on key competences in initial VET: digital, multilingual and literacy (completed)

In 2020, Cedefop presented the results of its research on key competences in initial VET: digital, multilingual and literacy. This comparative study provides insights into the extent the three selected key competences are embedded and promoted in initial upper secondary VET. The analysis covers three levels: national policies, qualifications, and curricula, including four main areas of policy intervention: reference documents, programme delivery, assessment standards, and teacher/trainer competences.

Study on entrepreneurship competence (ongoing)

The overall objective of the study is to shed light on how entrepreneurship competence is embedded in initial VET (school-based and work-based, including apprenticeships); it will also analyse continuing VET leading to formal qualifications. The findings will support policy-makers, social partners, VET providers and other stakeholders in promoting entrepreneurship competence.

Using the following research questions, the study will map and analyse how national (regional) policy translates into VET practices, 

complementing existing knowledge about methods, tools and approaches that support learning, teaching and assessing the entrepreneurship competence:

  1. To what extent and how do the dimensions of entrepreneurial learning ecosystems facilitate acquiring entrepreneurship competence in VET in Europe?
  2. What policies, methods, tools and approaches best support embedding entrepreneurship competence in VET?

Policy framework

The Council recommendation on key competences (2018), the Bruges communiqué (2011), and the Riga conclusions (2015) have supported the development of key competences in VET in Europe in the past decade.

The 2020 European skills agenda, the Council recommendation on VET (2020),  the Osnabrück declaration on VET (2020) and the Digital education action plan (2021-2027) gave new impetus to this process.

The first principle of the 2020 VET recommendation is that VET programmes should ‘offer a balanced mix of vocational including technical skills well aligned to all economic cycles, evolving jobs and working methods and key competences, including solid basic skills, digital, transversal, green and other life skills which provide strong foundations for resilience, lifelong learning, lifelong employability, social inclusion, active citizenship and personal development’.

One of the main actions of the 2020 European skills agenda refers to the adoption and implementation of the Council recommendation on VET, placing a special focus on making VET future-proof, promoting skills related to the twin transitions (green and digital) and fostering entrepreneurial and transversal skills.

The 2018 Council recommendation on key competences for lifelong learning defines eight key competences that all learners – including VET learners – should acquire:

  1. literacy;
  2. multilingual;
  3. mathematical, science, technology and engineering;
  4. digital;
  5. personal, social and learning to learn;
  6. citizenship;
  7. entrepreneurship;
  8. cultural awareness and expression.

Cedefop has supported the review of the this recommendation process with its expertise, including (but not limited to):

In 2020, Cedefop also presented the results of its research on key competences in initial VET: digital, multilingual and literacy.

Research highlights

The study Key competences in initial vocational education and training: digital, multilingual and literacy revealed a high number of policies (79) promoting literacy, multilingual and/or digital competence in IVET in 2011-18 in the EU-27, Iceland, Norway and the UK. These policies often overlap with a focus on more than one key competence at the same time. More than half of the policies have a broader scope than IVET. Digital competence received the most attention from policy-makers. It is also more often addressed by policies exclusively devoted to one key competence, compared with literacy and multilingual competences. The research showed that such competences have been included in almost all qualification types in IVET between 2011 and 2018.

Approximately two-thirds of policies promoting the selected key competences have the explicit objective to embed these competences in IVET, contributing to observable changes in programme delivery, reference documents, teacher/trainer training and assessment standards. The remainder promote the selected key competences without embedding them in IVET.

The research confirmed that promoting the selected key competences in IVET is usually linked to broader societal objectives. Compared to the other competences, policies on multilingual competence more often have broader objectives, related to supporting lifelong learning (37% of the policies). Social inclusion is slightly more often the broader objective of policies promoting literacy compared to the other competences (25%). Policies promoting digital competence have employability as the most common broader societal objective (33%).

Stand-alone subjects/modules are the most common way of including literacy and multilingual competence in IVET. For digital competence, integration is key. Based on the analysis of sample curricula (in three sectors), digital and multilingual competences are mainly perceived as ‘pure’ key competences compared to occupation-specific competences. There are important differences by sector. For instance, multilingual competence is most often seen as an occupation-specific competence in the accommodation and food service sector (32% of all programmes in this sector) compared to digital competence, which is considered an occupation-specific competence mainly in the manufacturing sector (41% of all programmes in the sector).

National policy developments in 2015-20 in the EU

The Riga conclusions (2015) set strengthening of key competences in initial and continuing VET by 2020 as one of its five priorities. At the beginning of the 2015-20 policy cycle, most Directors-General for VET (DGVT) reported that strengthening key competences in VET by 2020 was among their national priorities. In total, 60% of all Member States rated strengthening key competences in VET as a high or medium priority (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Strengthening key competences as a national priority until 2020

Source: Cedefop based on information provided by the Directors-General for VET

Cedefop’s Enhancing European cooperation in VET: outcomes of the Riga cycle (2020) shows that policy developments in this area in the period 2015-20 have focused on literacy and multilingual competences (25% of developments), digital competence (21%), maths/science/technology (15%) and entrepreneurship competence (including financial competence) (10%). ‘Key competences have been emphasised in national education/VET/lifelong learning strategies. IVET and CVET curricula and programmes have been revised accordingly. Specific dedicated strategies, campaigns and public agencies were set up, for example on digital competence or literacy. A trend to develop tools supporting key competences (competence mapping tools, tools to support the acquisition of digital skills, learning-to-learn, entrepreneurship competence and other emerging key competences) is on the rise’. At national level, a wider variety of competences, for instance physical and mental wellbeing, historical awareness, spatial awareness, and sustainable development are promoted.

Nevertheless, the 2018 PISA results showed that the share of young people with low performance in reading, maths and science has remained above the EU 2020 target of 15%. This share has increased compared to the 2015 PISA survey results in science and reading, i.e. there were more young people who lack sufficient key competences at age 15 than three years before and remained stable in mathematics. There is therefore a need to implement policies that further promote acquisition of key competences in upper secondary education, placing special focus on VET. For instance, according to PISA results, an important gap exists between the performance of learners in general education and VET programmes in reading.

Figure 2.  Share of 15-year-olds with low achievement in reading, maths and science in EU-28

NB: Low achievement means failing level 2 on the PISA scale.
Source: OECD PISA 2012, 2015 and 2018 results.

Further reading

EU policy

Related Cedefop reports and publications

Other publications

Country reports

These reports on key competences in VET were prepared by Cedefop’s ReferNet network in December 2015. They are part of the series Cedefop ReferNet thematic perspectives and complement other available general information on VET systems by country.

To adapt to new life situations and career shifts, manage change, take initiative and risk, innovate and engage in further learning, purely job-related skills are not enough. VET learners also require key competences. Riga Conclusions (2015) for the period up to 2020 seek for more effective opportunities to acquire or develop these skills through initial and continuing VET. The need to strengthen transversal skills and key competences is also reiterated in the joint report on the strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training 2020 (ET2020).

These reports inform on systematic national approaches to, and opportunities for, acquisition of key competences in upper secondary VET in the EU Member States, Iceland and Norway by addressing the following questions for each key competence:

  • How is the acquisition of the key competence promoted at national/regional level?
  • How is the progress in improving key competence levels/learning outcomes of VET students monitored?
  • Has the key competence level improved among VET upper secondary students since 2010?

The topicality of the reports was also linked to the New Skills Agenda for Europe (2016) that supports a review of the European Parliament and of the Council recommendation on key competences (2006) to help more people acquire the core set of skills necessary to work and live in the 21st century.

Please, see the country reports for Key competences in VET here.