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An Inside Look at the European Year of Skills - Interview with Manuela Geleng, Director for Jobs and Skills at DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion

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An Inside Look at the European Year of Skills - Interview with Manuela Geleng, Director for Jobs and Skills at DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion

18 October 2023
DG EMPL Director
Eurydice News

Ms. Geleng is the Director of Directorate B in the Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion at the European Commission. Her Directorate works to make sure that jobs and skills keep pace with the rapid changes in both the labour market and wider society. It aims to identify policy responses to new and emerging trends in the world of work, to empower individuals to learn throughout their lives and careers and to ensure vocational education and training (VET) in the EU is fit for purpose, with the view to support an innovative, adaptable and resilient workforce.

Why was the European Year of Skills launched and what is its main objective?

The European Year of Skills has the general objective of promoting a mindset of lifelong upskilling and reskilling among individuals, companies and authorities. Indeed, action is needed as Europe’s population is rapidly ageing, and the European labour market is experiencing skills shortages and shifting skills needs. Take the example of digital skills: Not only are EU companies having difficulties in recruiting ICT experts, they also have to deal with the fact that about 90% of all jobs will demand at least basic digital skills.

In that context, it is crucial to help people get the relevant skills for quality jobs and helping companies, in particular small and medium enterprises (SME), to address skills shortages. The participation of adults in upskilling and reskilling remains low, with a participation rate of around 37%. By fostering an environment where lifelong upskilling and reskilling is the norm, 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.

The Year will also provide a great opportunity to optimise the funding resources the EU already provides for skills, especially through the European Social Fund Plus (ESF+), the Just Transition Fund and the Recovery and Resilience Facility.

Could you give us an overview on the situation when it comes to matching companies’ needs with  workers’ actual skills?

Making the demand and supply of skills match better is a critical aspect of a well-functioning labour market and the needs in this respect are now urgent.  In 2019, 77% of EU companies struggled to find employees with the required skills.

As advocated by the European Skills Agenda, we need better cooperation between companies, workers, social partners, training providers, local authorities and employment services to identify the skills needed to support Europe’s green and digital transitions. By fostering a supportive ecosystem and promoting continuous learning, the European Union aims to enhance the alignment between job requirements and the skills of its workforce.

In order to facilitate information sharing, successful practices, and the establishment of contacts among relevant actors, the Commission is implementing several actions.  The European Alliance for Apprenticeships (EAfA) is a platform to promote apprenticeships as a unique opportunity for young individuals to acquire practical skills and valuable work experience. The Pact for Skills is an opportunity for industry, vocational education providers, social partners and public employment services to partner up and commit to training and investing in the reskilling of workers. 18 Large Scale Skills Partnerships are now operational in key industrial ecosystems, committed to train ten million workers.

Building on these networks, as well as on initiatives such as the Council Recommendations on individual learning accounts and a European approach to Micro-credentials, we will strengthen education and training, reskilling and upskilling in the EU to bridge the skills gap.

Do you think that there is a good balance between soft, transferable and hard skills?

In today's dynamic labour market, finding the right balance between soft, transferable and hard skills is paramount. While so-called hard skills provide the specific technical expertise required for particular tasks, transferable and soft skills (also often called transversal skills)  enable individuals to excel in various roles and industries.

A combination of all types of skills enhances employability, facilitates career growth, and fosters adaptability to changing job demands.

Recognizing the value of transversal or transferable skill and soft skills ensures a well-rounded workforce prepared for future opportunities. Employees from all sectors rank transversal skills in the top five most important skills for any job in Europe. However, a substantial portion of the EU labour force lacks key transversal skills: 25% of employees lack communication skills, 24% teamwork, 23% problem solving, 24.5% learning and 26% planning and organization. Digitalisation and the use of artificial intelligence are increasing the importance of soft skills.

It is clear that employers increasingly recognize the value of a skill set that includes hard and soft skills, job specific skills and transferable skills, making the capacity to learn continuously an essential aspect of career development and employability. I think it’s interesting to also highlight that skills requested on the labour market are complementary with skills for everyday life – just think of digital skills, which are as important to working life as well as to being an active citizen.

What are the initiatives that will be launched aiming at boosting transferable skills across Europe?

The EU has initiated many policy measures to strengthen and ensure a proper recognition of the value of all skills across Member States, including transferable skills.

The Council Recommendation on Key Competences for Lifelong Learning (2018/C 189/01) focuses on the development of key competences and transversal skills, which are not specific to any particular job.

The European Skills Agenda also plays a fundamental role in ensuring that people in Europe develop the skills they need for the jobs of today and tomorrow. One of the key priorities is to foster transversal, transferable skills, such as entrepreneurial and creative problem-solving competences, which are increasingly in demand across all sectors in the labour market and can be transferred across jobs and sectors.

Concrete tools are already delivering results and will continue to support the valorisation of transferable skills across Europe. One example is LifeComp, the European framework for the personal, social and learning to learn key competences. It is a conceptual framework and can be used as a basis for the development of curricula and learning activities.

Another well-known instrument is the Europass Platform, which offers a set of online tools to help individuals showcase their skills and experiences in a clear and standardised way to potential employers. It provides a dedicated section for transversal skills, based on ESCO, to enhance their importance in selection processes, unlocking their relevance for the labour market.

Which sectors will mostly be impacted by this initiative?

The European Year of Skills is relevant for every one of us and it is hoped that the Year will help all sectors and occupations facing skills shortages.

Insights into sectors with persistent labour shortages and skills gaps are provided in the Commission’s recently published Employment and Social Developments in Europe 2023 Report. Occupations and sectors that are expected to continue to face labour shortages include those linked to construction, healthcare, science, technology (especially information and communication technologies, ICT), engineering, and mathematics.

It is important to note that the European Commission is seeking since some years to address these challenges, including through the European Skills Agenda. For instance, the Pact for Skills – which I referred to earlier - has facilitated the establishment of 18 partnerships in key industrial sectors, each identifying skills gaps and committing to upskilling and reskilling workers. Already this has led to two million people benefitting from training, with €160 million invested by Pact members so far.

Where do we stand with recognition of qualifications and learning, and what is the initiative the Commission will propose on this matter?

Properly understanding qualifications from other Member States is important, and since 2008 the European Qualifications Framework (EQF) provides a reference for better appreciating the level of qualifications throughout Europe. All Member States and ten associated countries have referenced their national qualifications framework, the latest being Ukraine, in 2023.

However, more and more companies understand that labour shortages can sometimes be better addressed if the focus is on the skills of applicants, independently from their qualifications and their job titles – what is often called the “skills first approach”. Qualifications remain important, as they signal skills, but people have many skills that can be tapped into and made more visible. This is all the more important at a time when companies cannot find enough skilled workers and is also relevant in relation to third country nationals.

To speed up and facilitate legal migration and integration in the labour market, an initiative on the recognition of qualifications and validation of skills of third country nationals is currently under preparation in the Commission. This initiative will be published later this year and is one of the flagship initiatives of the European Year of Skills.

Since one of the priorities is to attract people from outside the EU with the skills needed, does that mean that the same mechanisms for recognition of qualifications within the EU will also apply to qualifications coming from outside the EU’s borders?

The Commission is constantly working to improve the recognition of qualifications and validation of skills within the EU and through the network of ENIC-NARICs. There are several EU level tools supporting transparency of and trust in qualifications and skills, like the EQF, which helps in comparing qualifications, the Europass CV, which asks applicants to describe their skills, the ESCO and the European Learning Model. The 2022 Council Recommendation on a European common framework for micro-credentials, quoted above, aims at improving the transparency and credibility of small credentials released after short courses, increasing their value in the labour market. The updated European guidelines on Validation were published recently. All these tools can be used to support the recognition of skills of third country nationals and EU citizens. Whereas the Union wishes to create a framework to facilitate transparency, recognition itself is a Member State competence.

The New Pact on Migration and Asylum recognised the crucial role that legal migration plays in filling existing and emerging skills shortages. Legal migration is also an important asset for the EU’s cooperation with countries of origin and transit. The Commission adopted a Skills and Talent Package in April 2022 to reinforce the EU action and legal framework in this area.

The Commission will also propose an EU Talent Pool to facilitate labour matching with non-EU nationals. A pilot scheme is currently being launched, focusing on people fleeing Russia’s war against Ukraine. The Commission is also working on tailor-made Talent Partnerships with specific key partner countries.

The package on recognition of qualifications of third country nationals I mentioned earlier is closely linked to these initiatives.

How can we ensure that opportunities for upskilling are accessible, fair and inclusive?

 The EU provides substantial financial support, in particular through the European Social Fund Plus, to ensure that adult learning opportunities can be accessed by all adults. The recent Council Recommendation on individual learning accounts has this as its core aim. It invites Member States to set up schemes where each adult, whether employed, self-employed or unemployed, is provided with a small amount that can only be used for training. This does not replace the support traditionally given by companies to train their staff, but is has a more inclusive approach, as it concerns every adult, not only the employees of large companies, but also those that are in atypical forms of work, employees of SMEs, unemployed or inactive. It is also important to fight stereotypes, in particular gender stereotypes. Providing targeted support and tailored initiatives to address the specific needs of all groups will be instrumental in fostering inclusivity and equal access to upskilling opportunities.

 Ensuring equal opportunities for upskilling is important for the social inclusion of individuals. This is crucial especially as regards to digital inclusion, as vital services are increasingly available only online.

Author: Anna Maria Volpe


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