Recovery and Upskilling in Transitioning European Economy: Ensuring Pathways for Vulnerable Groups


In an earlier article on a similar subject I wrote about the ever-changing profile of the European economy and the associated need for people to be equipped with a relevant set of key competences – including literacy, numeracy and digital prowess. Nothing changes, but everything changes – thus learning skills and the ability to adapt is a lifelong affair. The governance and quality control of these emerging skills is as important as ensuring the prevention of skills gaps and mismatches. According to CEDEFOP, almost half of EU workers will need to update their skills and/or gain new ones to get or keep jobs and to embrace the opportunities of the digital and green transitions. Evolution is being bypassed by revolution, and labour markets need the flexibility and farsightedness to adapt to rapidly changing scenarios.

This raises the question of equitable access for all sectors in the roll out of public policy. Vulnerable groups must have an equal access to education, skilling and upskilling. The critical role of training in furnishing badly needed skills to improve productivity, incomes and widespread and equal access to employment opportunities seems particularly obvious and straightforward. It is widely accepted that training is an essential instrument of public policy, especially for the most vulnerable groups in society.

There is an emerging consensus that skills development for the poor and most vulnerable be an integral part of community-based economic and political development. In a report by the ILO (International Labour Organisation) it was concluded that “Communities need to mobilise around specific development alternatives that address key political, social, and economic constraints. Skills development should be driven by a ‘people-centred’ pedagogy’ which maximises locally available skills and empowers the poor to learn for themselves.”

Low qualifications, disengagement from education and training and long-term unemployment are interconnected phenomena and tend to build up throughout a person’s life. To prevent and combat the marginalisation of youth and adults, national authorities across Europe have been developing measures to address the needs of people who slip through the cracks of standard education, training and employment policies. People who lack basic life and work skills require comprehensive strategies which may mobilise health, social and psychological services. The EU and Member states must avoid the creation of new gaps among the most vulnerable resulting from unequal access to technology, especially between generations, gender and between rural areas and cities.

The European Commission’s’ ‘Euro​pean Skills Agenda’ strives towards sustainable competitiveness, social fairness and resilience. The aim is to ensure that the right to training and lifelong learning, enshrined in the European Pillar of Social rights, becomes a reality all across Europe. The agenda recognises that green and digital transitions, accompanied by demographic trends are transforming how we live, work and interact. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated these transitions and brought new career challenges for many people in Europe. In the aftermath of the crisis, many Europeans will need to retrain in a new skill or improve their existing skills to adapt to the changed labour market

​Nicolas Schmit, EU Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, said: “The skilling of our workforces is one of our central responses to the recovery, and providing people the chance to build the skill sets they need is key to preparing for the green and digital transitions. It gives everyone the possibility to benefit from new opportunities in a fast-moving labour market.”

The European Skills Agenda is a five-year plan to help individuals and businesses develop more and better skills and to put them to use by:

  • strengthening sustainable competitiveness, as set out in the European Green Deal;
  • ensuring social fairness, putting into practice the first principle of the European Pillar of Social Rights: access to education, training and lifelong learning for everybody, everywhere in the EU;
  • building resilience to react to crises, based on the lessons learnt during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Building upon the ten actions of the Commission’s 2016 Skills Agenda it also links to the European Digital Strategy; the Industrial and Small and Medium Enterprise Strategy and the Recovery Plan for Europe.

The European Commission has designated 2023 as the ‘European Year of Skills,’ an initiative that stems from the challenges and opportunities brought to the labour market by the digital and green transitions, which call for new skills of the workforce. It aims at boosting competitiveness, investment in training and upskilling opportunities to make sure that workers acquire the skills demanded on the labour market, including digital skills. According to Eurostat, only 37% of adults follow training on a regular basis, and many of them lack basic digital skills. The initiatives will also focus on the activation of more women, young people and vulnerable groups on the labour market.

It is hoped that the European Year of Skills will provide a new momentum to reach the EU 2030 social targets of at least 60% of adults in training every year, and at least 78% in employment, and this to be achieved by helping companies, in particular small and medium enterprises, to address skills shortages in the EU. Currently, more than three quarters of companies in the EU say they have difficulties finding workers with the necessary skills, while only 37% of adults undertake training on a regular basis.

The last word is given to Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission:

“We need much more focus in our investment on professional education and upskilling. We need better cooperation with companies, because they know best what they need. And we need to match these needs with people’s aspirations. But we also have to attract the right skills to our continent, skills that help companies and strengthen Europe’s growth. “

Tom McGrath


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