The interaction between vocational education and training (VET) systems and a rapidly changing world of work was the theme of Cedefop’s 4th Brussels-based seminar, organised with the cooperation of the Estonian EU Presidency on 8 December.

Over 60 participants from the Permanent Representations of Member States to the EU, the European Commission, the European Parliament, research institutions, private businesses and social partners discussed with Cedefop and external experts to what extent VET systems are able to respond to changing labour markets and work environments.

Ülle Kurvits, Chair of the Education Committee of the Estonian EU Presidency, opened the seminar.

Welcoming participants, Cedefop Deputy Director Mara Brugia said that the seminars organised with the rotating EU Presidency are now established as a regular feature of the Brussels education/training and employment calendar, adding that their aim is to discuss priorities, challenges and potential solutions for policy-making in VET and related areas with stakeholders from different fields, contexts and expertise who are based in Brussels. They also provide an opportunity to work directly with the sitting Presidency and identify areas and issues of interest and relevance to both Cedefop and the Presidency.

No simple answers

Ms Brugia admitted that there are no simple answers to the question whether VET systems in Europe are prepared for the future of work. She noted that there are good reasons for asking this question now.

First, there is a tendency to underestimate VET’s role in society and the economy. More than 10 million students every year attend VET programmes at EQF levels 3 and 4, which is close to 50% of all EU students attending upper secondary education. Despite this, some EU policy initiatives still focus mainly on the role of general and higher education.

Lack of VET visibility risks reinforcing the perception that vocational training is an option for weaker students, somehow associated with academic failure. However, this is an underestimation of the wide range of skills and competences required by modern labour markets and by democratic and inclusive societies. During the economic crisis, we observed the important role played by VET systems in helping prevent youth unemployment and integrating young people into society.

Due to tendencies towards job-polarisation and automatisation, there are concerns that demand for medium level VET skills will start to drop.

In contrast to the above, demographic developments and an ageing population in Europe point to the increasing role played by labour-intensive health, social and personal services in our societies. The quality of these services requires the development of relevant and appropriate VET.

The rapid change of technologies and services highlights the importance of providing learners and workers with the right mix of technical/job-specific and transversal skills, and of lifelong learning, concluded Ms Brugia.

Cedefop expert Konstantinos Pouliakas presented the implications of current tendencies towards automation and digitalisation on skills demand and shared some of the findings from work being carried out at the agency.

Cedefop expert Jens Bjornavold reflected on the ability of VET systems to respond to change, building on Cedefop’s ongoing research on European VET systems.

LinkedIn’s Mirek Pospisil and Séin Ó Muineacháin reflected on changing skills demand based on data from the online platform’s 500 million users.

A panel discussion on how VET can respond to a changing world of work followed.


Ms Brugia summed up the conclusions of the debate:

  • More evidence and data are needed to understand the magnitude and nature of the platform economy/digitalisation and the implications in skills change. Will some skills (apart from digital skills) become more important? Will the nature of some skills change substantially? Will new skills be needed that currently only few people possess? The fragmented evidence at our disposal is not solid enough to support policy-makers in shaping and implementing effective polices/reforms to address these challenges.
  • The debate about digitalisation and the platform economy is not only about digital skills; it is much wider and should also consider the ongoing transformation of the world of work. Digitalisation does not only affect the skills we need but also the way we work, where we work, etc. and thus is changing the concept of workplace. This requires that we reflect on how to adapt VET policies, for example apprenticeships and workplace and work-based learning more generally, as the latter are not yet prepared for this structural change. This is an area Cedefop is starting to reflect upon.
  • We must link the above evidence on skills and labour market needs to systematic analyses of the VET system and link these two perspectives (skills/labour market trends and VET system capacity to respond to the change) in a ‘feedback loop’ approach.