The European Skills Agenda is a call for action on a set of ambitious targets, and involves the upskilling and reskilling of millions of adult people by 2025. To implement the Skills Agenda, governments and social partners, state and non-state actors will have to innovate their cooperation arrangements, and learn new roles and responsibilities.

The European Skills Agenda for sustainable competitiveness, social fairness and resilience was launched in July 2020 and marks a new, higher commitment to invest in people through their skills, competencies, and knowledge. It sets targets for the reskilling and upskilling of more than 100 million people across all EU member states, and it sets out the conditions and measures to attain these targets.

The targets set to be attained by 2025 are four. The first is raising the upskilling and reskilling of adult people by 32 per cent, which implies that 120 million adults across all EU member states should participate in learning every year. The other three targets are: raising the number of low-qualified adults participating in learning activities by 67 per cent per year, raising the number of jobseekers with recent learning experience by 82 per cent, and raising the number of adults with basic digital skills by a quarter.

If we take the current level of adult participation in learning as the starting point, these targets are ambitious. The reality is that the access of adults to training opportunities is currently relatively low on average in the EU. In other words, based on the evidence provided by survey data, the targets have at least the merit of showing the scale of the challenge ahead for realising lifelong learning in practice.

In this light, the heart of the Skills Agenda is a call for action on a package of 12 measures that can substantively increase adults’ participation in learning. The measures cover a wide range of interventions, including for example: alliances between the skills demand and supply side (the EU Pact for Skills, which was launched in autumn 2020), data analysis on skills needs, enhancement of basic, transversal and entrepreneurial competencies, validation of short-term courses, and the identification of mechanisms to mobilise public and private financial resources.

These measures are interdependent. The alliance of those who demand skills and those who supply them, the Pact for Skills, will support the implementation of the other measures. It is thus necessary to unlock financial resources to fulfil all these actions. Indeed, the Pact for Skills and the financing are more than technical solutions: they are conditions for implementing the whole Skills Agenda and for leveraging adult learning in the direction set out by the four targets.

The Pact for Skills should involve skills providers, employers and employees, adult education associations, expert organisations, national and/or local authorities or governmental agencies and sectoral organisations that unite around a common vision of adult learning. The Pact’s signatories adhere to specific, measurable commitments about fair access to high quality upskilling and reskilling opportunities. There are situations where the Pact will be particularly useful, as when a sector or an integrated value chain transitions to a greener business model or increased digitalisation, which often creates the need for new skills for numerous employees. Training of good quality requires investment, so resource mobilisation is essential in the Skills Agenda. In order to achieve a number of 100 million adults participating in learning every year in the EU, state budgets as well as private contributions will need to be increased.

The Pact for Skills and the mobilisation of financial resources should be seen as enablers of all the measures in the Skills Agenda. Yet they are novel avenues, which means that innovation and a mix of lessons from past experience should be used to make the Pact for Skills and the unlocking of financial resources operational.

A source of inspiration for the Pact for Skills is the EU Blueprint for sectoral cooperation on skills. The Blueprint initiative has formed sector-specific partnerships that gather together businesses, trade unions, research institutions, education and training institutions, and public authorities. These stakeholders act jointly to address skills shortages and unemployment in their respective sector. However, the Blueprint has so far unfolded at EU-level and created transnational alliances, while the Pact for Skills should respond to or anticipate training needs that are specific to a country or territory, and it should commit to upskilling and reskilling people according to well-defined targets. Another reference is offered by public-private partnerships (PPPs) in vocational education and training, in which public and private actors define a common endeavour in the field of skills, and then co-design and co-finance its activities, joining forces in its implementation.

The Pact for Skills, however, will address adults’ skills needs at a larger scale than most of the PPPs that are currently providing vocational education and training. Moreover, it will include a wider range of actors such as, for example, centres of expertise on skills, trainers of different specialities and levels of competence, experts in adult pedagogy, local authorities and technical agencies. The Pact for Skills should also involve social enterprises, non-governmental organisations and other actors in addition to the social partners because a wide range of actors provide training for adults. This wide range is due to the fact that adults mostly learn outside the formal school system. They rather tend to participate in activities in non-formal settings, for example through courses that are organised by employment offices, employers or independent training organisations, as well as in informal settings, for example through their colleagues at the workplace, or during social activities in the community.

With all this, and with flexibility of the training options, the Pact for Skills has the potential to motivate all adults to learn, even those who do not yet regularly participate, and it has the potential to leave no one behind. The Pact for Skills will have to develop innovative cooperation mechanisms, create new agreement formats, blend skills intelligence from different sources, develop engaging learning environments and tools for cooperating on large-scale projects. Due to the variety of solutions that will be necessary, there should be different Pacts, depending on the sectoral and territorial characteristics, the labour market, and the various needs of the individuals.

As stated earlier, the other relevant condition for implementing the Skills Agenda across all member states is the mobilisation of financial resources. This, too, will require building on past experiences and innovating at the same time. While the EU budget can act as a catalyst for additional investment in skills, instruments for public and private financing should also be developed at national and sub-national level. Fiscal incentives will remain an important tool for motivating in-company training and retraining. The fiscal leverage has worked in creating training funds (for example, at the level of sectors and regions) and this model can be expanded further. Other existing financing mechanisms include the above-mentioned PPPs for skills development, as well as learning vouchers which can be used by individuals to cover the cost of a training course of their choice.

New methods and tools for financing adult learning are starting to be used within and beyond Europe. A method worth mentioning is the individual learning account (ILA), which is an entitlement either in terms of time or money per hour of work. ILAs aim to create a portable individual right to training for all workers, including those in non-standard contract or with occasional jobs, with a view to fostering inclusiveness. According to a recent FEPS-Jacques Delors Institute report, in countries where these ILAs already exist, they have a potential to increase the quality of the training offer and to foster a culture of learning.

Another innovative mechanism is impact financing, an approach to financing based on the value that a programme or project will generate in the long term. Social Impact Bonds are a specific instrument of impact financing that focus on the value generated by social projects. Here, the measure of value is the benefit for people, or for the planet. Recent experiences have shown that Social Impact Bonds are promising funding instruments for projects that increase the percentage of children completing school in a given urban district; generate higher youth employment of good quality; raise the adult employment rate through quality training; and improve health due to decreased carbon emissions. Impact financing is not yet frequently used in adult training or in lifelong learning more generally. But upskilling and reskilling are clearly an area where this method of financing would find wide application. To make the Skills Agenda a reality, various institutions, individuals, private organisations, social partners and civil society organisations need to join forces and cooperate in activity implementation and financing. Much can be learned from past experience but, given the unprecedented size of the objectives to be attained, there is a need to create innovative solutions too. Designing and managing new upskilling and reskilling schemes will require capacities that the public, private and third sector should develop. These innovative solutions and new capacities are also important for fostering coherence with the European Pillar of Social Rights, where equal access to education and training features as a priority right of EU citizens.

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