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New Skills for New Jobs – many words but not much action

February 9th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

I have just finished reading the ‘New Skills for New Jobs: Action Now‘ report by the Expert Group on New Skills for New Jobs prepared for the European Commission. it is hard to know how important these advisory reports are – but there is little doubt that they reflect the direction of thinking of both the European Commission and European Member States. Furthermore, the European Commission is a major funder of training through the European Social Fund, and also sponsors research and pilot programmes through the Lifelong Learning programme.

The report is interesting in that the self congratulatory hyperbole of the Lisbon Declaration and various follow up initiatives has all gone.

No longer are we to be the most innovative and best educated region of the world by some future date.

Instead the first part of the report presents a sober and somewhat pessimistic viewpoint towards education, skills and employment in Europe.

“Nearly one third of Europe’s population aged 25-64, around 77 million people, have no, or low, formal qualifications and only one quarter have high level qualifications”, the report says. “And those with low qualifications are much less likely to participate in upskilling and lifelong learning. Furthermore, nearly one third of Europe’s population aged 25-64, around 77 million people, have no, or low, formal qualifications and only one quarter have high level qualifications. And those with low qualifications are much less likely to participate in upskilling and lifelong learning. Furthermore,of the five European benchmarks in education and training set for 2010, only one is likely to be reached. Worryingly, the latest figures show that 14.9 % of pupils leave school early with several countries suffering from extremely high drop-out rates; the performance in reading literacy is actually deteriorating. This is not only unacceptable but means that we are way off
meeting the 10 % European target of early school leavers. We are, indeed standing on a ‘burning platform’.

Europe aims to be amongst the most highly skilled regions in the world, yet many European countries are not even in the top 20.flexible learning pathways, and focus on the development of essential skills as well as job-specific skills.”

The report summarises “these essential, transversal, skills” as “mother tongue; foreign language; maths, science and technology; digital competence; learning to learn; social and civic competences; sense of initiative and entrepreneurship;
and cultural awareness/expression.”

The second half of the report is given over to a series of policy recommendations. And despite a promising start in calling for  “‘skills ecosystems’ in which individuals, employers and the broader economic and social context are in permanent dynamic interaction”, there is little new. Much seems to be an exhortation to greater activity and effort but with few practical proposals for change other than more flexibility, more openness and more attention to the labour market.

“It is essential that the European Commission, Member States and employer organisations, in close co-operation with
education and training providers and trade unions, ‘make the case’ for skills and use modern information, communication and marketing techniques to encourage greater commitment to skills upgrading by individuals, employers and public and employment.”

Where genuinely radical proposals are put forward they seem designed to shift more responsibility on the individual for ensuring their skills needs match market demand, albeit with some incentives.

“In order to rise to these challenges, education and training must be made more relevant to labour market needs, and more responsive to learners’ needs. This requires more than tinkering with systems and institutions: it compels us to rethink what we want from education”, the report says. But where is that rethinking, other than reshaping educational organisations to meet market needs (and this is hardly new).

There are four sub areas to the recommendations:

1. Provide the right incentives to upgrade and better use skills for individuals and employers.
2. Bring the worlds of education, training and work closer together.
3. Develop the right mix of skills.
4. Better anticipate future skills needs.

Worryingly in providing an example of measures which can help promote higher skills levels the report turns to vouchers – as piloted and discredited in the UK some years ago.

“Two tools to do this are learning vouchers and learning accounts; in the latter an employee can save and accumulate public and private funding and time off from work in order to undertake periodical training.”

The report says “Public spending on labour market programmes, education and training should not be reduced in times of uncertainty (someone should tell that to Peter Mandelson). However its proposes that such funding should be “directed to effective preventive and curative measures.”

Indeed the report goes on to more directive advice for the role of public education organisations or Public Employment Services (PES). “PES should consistently design their training schemes according to market needs as well as to stimulate entrepreneurship and self-employment.”

At the level of design of training programme sand qualifications the report calls says “A systematic matching of job profiles, breaking down job vacancies to their individual components (both of job specific and generic skill requirements), can serve as the basis for effective and efficient matching.”

The call to “Prioritise guidance and counselling services and motivational support for individuals improve the quality of these services and ensure that they tackle stereotypes”, is welcome. Far less is the proposal to establish league tables for courses through  publicising ” in a visible and comparable format on the web the opportunities and offers, as well as the prices and returns, of public and private education and training courses, so that individuals can make informed choices.”

In terms of pedagogy it is little surprise that the report backs the present initiative by the European Commission to promote learning outcomes based programmes. “The learning outcomes approach can serve best the needs of both the learner and the labour market, provided that employers are involved in defining, designing, certifying and recognising learning outcomes. It can help to develop a common language: instead of classifying jobs by occupational type and required qualification, as has been the case so far, we can now move toward describing both in terms of skills and competences.”

There is an interesting section which further refers to transversal skills, here far more narrowly defined. “Moreover, young people often complain that they feel unprepared for the world of work when they get there. The missing link, in
part, lies in a set of desirable skills such as the ability to work quickly, analyse and organise complex information, take responsibility, handle crisis, manage risk and take decisive action.”

There is surprisingly little discussion of digital skills and identities. However the report does say: “Digital and media literacy will be crucial both for life and work, and we should tend to the new goal of digital fluency. For an increasing number of jobs, indeed, digital fluency is increasingly required.”

Learning through work is also promoted but with few examples as to how this can be developed. Indeed much more attention is given to the idea of mini companies within education – the report says these should be introfuced at all levels to help students learn to be entrepreneurial.

All in all a disappointment. I would share the authors concerns over the state of education and skills in Europe and also that spending should be increased and not cut back. But they have failed to propose anything new. Indeed most of the practical policies strongly resemble the attempts by the UK Labour government to reform education and training to be more responsive to market needs and to promote individuals taking more responsibility for their skills and employability. And look where that got us.

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