Matching workers' skills with the demands of employers is seen as crucial to boosting employment rates, restoring growth and tackle looming labour shortages in sectors like health care, science and the green economy.
- 10 Dec. 1994: Essen summit adopts a series of recommendations for national employment policies, with an emphasis on vocational training.
- 16 June 1997: Amsterdam summit agrees on changes to the EU Treaty, including a new chapter on the coordination of employment policies.
- 21 Nov. 1997: Luxembourg summit launches European Employment Strategy.
- 24 March 2000: EU summit adopts 'Lisbon Strategy', including commitments to invest in education and training, reduce skills gaps and promote lifelong learning.
- 23 March 2005: Following the EU's enlargement from 15 to 25 countries, EU heads of state and government decide to re-launch the Lisbon Strategy with full employment as one of its objectives.
- 27 June 2007: European Commission publishes communication 'Towards Common Principles of Flexicurity: More and better jobs through flexibility and security'.
- 16 Dec. 2008: European Commission publishes communication 'New Skills for New Jobs'.
- 3 March 2010: European Commission publishes communication 'Europe 2020: A strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth'.
- 26 March 2010: EU summit agrees headline targets for 'Europe 2020' strategy, including an employment rate of 75% for both women and men.
- 27 April 2010: European Commission publishes guidelines on employment policies of member states.
- 9 June 2010: European Commission publishes proposals on vocational education and training.
- 17 June 2010: EU summit defines 'Europe 2020' targets for education levels and poverty reduction.
- 23 Nov. 2010: European Commission publishes communication 'An Agenda for new skills and jobs'.
- 4 March 2011: Council adopts conclusions on the role of education and training in the implementation of the 'Europe 2020' strategy.
- 10-11 March 2011: First Tripartite Social Forum in Brussels, with representatives of employers' organisations and trade unions.
- 2012: Commission communication on flexicurity.
- 2020: EU member states to reach an employment rate of 75% for both women and men under 'Europe 2020' strategy.
Europe is facing an acute lack of highly educated and qualified workers in the fields of science, technology and engineering, which threatens to undermine the future economic competitiveness of the EU.
The European Commission has identified 'green jobs' in areas related to clean and energy-efficient technologies, as well as 'white jobs' in the fields of health and social care, among the most promising sources of new jobs for the future.
The 'Europe 2020' strategy, signed off by EU leaders in 2010, includes a target to increase the employment rate across all member states from its current level of around 69% to 75% by 2020.
Achieving this target, which applies for both women and men between 20 and 64 years of age, will mean reducing the number of unemployed people in the EU from around 23 million (9.5% of the workforce) at the start of 2011 to less than 12 million (5% of the workforce) in 2020.
'An Agenda for New Skills and Jobs' is the name of a plan which sets out a series of 13 actions that the European Commission said it will take in order to support the efforts of member states to reduce unemployment.
The plan focuses in particular on helping to provide people, including the unemployed, with the training and skills they will need to improve their chances of finding jobs in sectors that are expected to grow in the coming years.
The agenda is one of seven so-called 'flagship initiatives' by the European Commission in the framework of the 'Europe 2020' strategy, which has the overall aim of promoting smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.
One of the other flagship initiatives is called 'Youth on the Move'. It focuses on measures to help young people enter the labour market by improving access to education and training as well as information about job opportunities across the whole of the EU.
Because they are both designed to reduce unemployment, 'New Skills and Jobs' and 'Youth on the Move' are intended to complement one another, and some of the proposed actions, such as the 'European skills passport', are included in both initiatives.
Services, ICT and the green economy
The European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Cedefop) has predicted that among the most important sources of new jobs in the coming years will be business services, health care and social work, distribution, personal services, hotels and catering.
EU officials anticipate that the next few years could see serious shortages of skilled workers in sectors like information and communication technologies (ICT), health care and social care – so-called "white jobs".
Europe is facing an acute lack of highly educated and qualified workers in the fields of science, technology and engineering, which threatens to undermine the future economic competitiveness of the EU. The Commission anticipates that the ICT sector will witness a significant shortage of skilled workers in the next five years, with perhaps as many as 700,000 job vacancies remaining unfilled.
ICTs are seen as an area where Europe needs to invest in ensuring that its workforce has the skills and knowledge necessary to compete with emerging economies such as China, India and South Korea.
The European Commission anticipates that the transition towards a low-carbon economy will also have a significant impact on employment, leading to the creation of new jobs in energy, water and waste treatment, construction, transport, industry, agriculture and forestry.
Environmental NGOs are encouraging the EU to promote the creation of so-called "green jobs" by encouraging investments in renewable energy sources and energy-efficient technologies, for example in the transport sector and in the construction industry.
The Commission's roadmap for moving towards a low-carbon economy, published in March 2011, anticipates that a net gain of up to 1.5 million jobs could be achieved by 2020.
Another way to increase the employment rate is to encourage the creation of new businesses, which studies have identified as being the most important source of new jobs.
The European Union has a number of initiatives to encourage entrepreneurship and support SMEs, notably through the Small Business Act.
Education and training: A national responsibility
One major obstacle to any European policy on skills is the EU's limited scope for action.
The Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union (TfEU) clearly states that the EU must fully respect "the responsibility of the member states for the content of teaching and the organisation of education systems" (Article 165). The European Commission is allowed to "encourage cooperation between member states" and "support and supplement their action" – but only "if necessary".
Some member states are especially sensitive to any perception of interference in their education systems. Britain, for instance, has decided not to participate in setting national education targets for young people, even though the government signed off on those objectives as part of the 'Europe 2020' strategy. Germany and Austria have also long resisted setting EU-side education targets but finally committed to them after they were watered down.
When it comes to training, the Commission was asked to "support and supplement the action of the member states" – for example by stimulating cooperation between establishments and organisations that provide training, or developing exchanges of information and experience (Article 166 TfEU).
However, the Treaty makes clear that the EU must fully respect "the responsibility of the member states for the content and organisation of vocational training". Meanwhile, the text explicitly forbids "any harmonisation of the laws and regulations of the member states".
An agenda for new skills and jobs
The 'Agenda for New Skills and Jobs', presented by the European Commission in November 2010, encourages member states to increase efforts to help workers learn the skills needed to do the jobs that will be created in growth sectors in the coming years.
"We need to equip people with the right skills for the jobs on the market today and in the future," said László Andor, EU commissioner responsible for employment, social policy and inclusion. "We know that even now some employers are struggling to fill vacancies because they cannot find people with the right skills."
The 'Agenda for new skills and jobs' is based around four main priorities:
1. Labour market reform
Member states are encouraged to reform their labour markets to enable greater flexibility and make it less difficult for workers to change jobs, and more attractive for employers to expand their workforces during periods of business growth.
The concept of 'flexicurity' is seen as a way of combining a flexible labour market with measures to provide more security for individual workers, for example by giving them access to a replacement income and training opportunities to help them manage career changes.
While employers' organisations are mostly positive about the Commission's suggestions on flexicurity, European trade unions have voiced opposition to some of the proposed changes, fearing that they would lead to a weakening of levels of social protection.
The Commission also asks member states and social partners to consider measures such as short-time working arrangements, which allow companies to adapt to periods of low demand by scaling back their activities and reducing their labour costs, while avoiding large-scale job losses.
Actions: The Commission announced it will organise a stakeholder conference on 'flexicurity' and then publish a communication in 2012; present proposals on the implementation of lifelong learning strategies and a renewed action plan for adult learning; and promote dialogue with social partners by organising a Tripartite Social Forum every year, in advance of the spring European Council, with representatives of employers' organisations and trade unions.
2. Raising skill levels
A better educated and more highly skilled workforce is seen as crucial for economic competitiveness. The 'Europe 2020' strategy includes targets for increasing the proportion of young people who complete their secondary education (to 90%), and increasing participation in further and higher education (to at least 40% of all young adults).
According to the Commission, millions of new jobs could be created in high-technology sectors (including ICTs, bio-tech and green-tech) which require highly-educated and highly-skilled workers. Therefore member states are being encouraged to ensure adequate investment in maths, science and technology teaching.
In 2007, an expert group at the EU executive recommended an overhaul of science teaching in European schools to fully harness the potential and inspire future generations of science students.
- Actions: The Commission announced it will develop an online portal with information and forecasts regarding labour market needs in each member state (called a 'Skills Panorama'); compile lists of the required skills and qualifications for thousands of different jobs (the 'ESCO' classification system); consider proposals to ensure the EU-wide recognition of professional qualifications; develop new proposals to promote the integration of third-country nationals (migrants from outside the EU); and consider proposals to ensure that the principle of the free movement of workers is respected by all member states.
3. Better job quality
The EU executive insists that increasing the number of jobs should not mean creating more jobs with poor working conditions.
The idea is that well-educated workers combined with good working conditions will lead to higher productivity and also to higher levels of participation in the labour market.
Actions: The Commission has promised to review the EU Working Time Directive (a
dopted in 2003), which lays down rules regarding working hours, break periods and holidays; review EU legislation regarding employers' obligations to inform and consult their workers, as well as the directives on part-time work and fixed-term contracts; evaluate the EU Strategy on Health and Safety at Work (2007-2012); and carry out a comprehensive review of health and safety legislation in partnership with member states, employers' organisations and trade unions.
4. Creating more jobs
Improving the supply of skilled workers will not automatically lead to higher levels of employment. Therefore, the Commission also underlines the need for policies to promote job creation.
For example, companies could be offered financial incentives or subsidies if they create job opportunities for workers who have been unemployed for a long time.
Promoting entrepreneurship and self-employment is seen as another way for member states to increase employment rates.
- Actions: The Commission will develop guiding principles for how member states can create the conditions for job growth. This should include: removing administrative and legal obstacles; reducing non-wage labour costs and moving workers from 'undeclared' work to regular employment.
To back these initiatives, the European Commission says the European Social Fund (ESF) and other EU funds can support the promotion of entrepreneurship, business start-ups and self-employment. They can also be used to provide targeted support to disadvantaged groups in terms of education, training and guidance.
In the current period (2007-2013), the total amount of money being spent on projects through the European Social Fund (ESF) is around €17 billion per year on average, including €10.9 billion from the EU budget, €5.4 billion from national, regional and local governments, and €550 million from private sector sources.
ESF programmes can support: reforming education and training systems; developing qualifications and competences; designing policies such as active labour market measures; strengthening administrative capacity and public employment services; measures to reconcile work and private life; and actions to tackle gender-based segregation in the labour market.
Meanwhile, the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) can be used to support investments in education infrastructure. Also in the framework of ERDF, the Joint Action to Support Micro-finance Institutions in Europe (JASMINE) and the recently created European Progress Microfinance Facility can help individuals to set up their own business or become self-employed.
The European Fund for the integration of third-country nationals can be used, together with the ESF, to increase the participation of migrants in employment.
BusinessEurope, which represents private-sector employers, issued a critical response to the Commission's proposals set out in the 'Agenda for New Skills and Jobs'.
According to BusinessEurope, "a post-crisis environment characterised by austerity means that, more than ever, the private sector's capacity to create jobs will be key to ensure Europe's future prosperity and boost living standards. This requires implementation of structural reforms in labour markets and social systems. The majority of such reforms will have to be pursued at national level".
"The European Commission should promote a positive attitude to change and exert pressure on member states to focus on growth and employment, which is not sufficiently the case in the New Skills and Jobs Agenda. It is too much 'business as usual' and lacks a much-needed sense of urgency. Moreover, it does not present a coherent picture of an agenda designed to promote growth and employment and even contains some initiatives which could undermine these objectives," the organisation said.
"A comprehensive legislative review of a series of directives is not only ill-timed; depending on the specific piece of legislation, it is also unnecessary or undesirable. Other new initiatives or instruments, for example in the area of skills and competencies, might be well-intentioned but appear disconnected from the magnitude of the challenges Europe is facing. Above all, the priority must be to build on existing EU-level tools and instruments and eliminate the real obstacles at national level," the statement concluded.
Eurochambres, the association representing EU chambers of commerce, told EurActiv it was disappointed with the Commission's 'Agenda for New Skills and Jobs', which it claimed "falls short in addressing the root causes of unemployment and in some areas risks exacerbating the problem".
Eurochambres considers that "inflexible labour laws" are a significant cause of unemployment in the EU. The association also regrets what it calls "the Commission's continuing negative stance on so-called atypical work – temporary work, freelancing, short-term contracts, etc".
According to Arnaldo Abruzzini, secretary-general of Eurochambres: "What the Commission still terms atypical is becoming increasingly typical. Europe needs diverse work patterns and contracts if we are to increase labour market participation rates, entrepreneurial activity and growth."
UEAPME, the European craft and SME employers' organisation, reacted to the Commission's proposals with what it called "mixed feelings".
Liliane Volozinskis, UEAPME's director for social affairs and employment policy, told EurActiv: "On the positive side, the European Commission insisted on the need to strengthen the flexicurity components and their implementation, which is even more necessary in difficult times. It also recognised for the first time the importance of paying attention to the needs of SMEs in employment regulation."
"However, the Commission came up again in the document with the idea of an open-ended work contract with a long probation period and a gradual increase of protection rights, without clear views on how it should apply. We as employers cannot agree with such contracts, if they are to replace temporary or other forms of flexible contractual arrangements," Volozinskis said.
"The Commission is also reopening the unnecessary debate on quality of work, which is already fully integrated in the flexicurity agenda. Another area for concern for us is the potential substantial increase in health and safety legislation, which is already highly regulated at EU level," she added.
Eurociett (the European Confederation of Private Employment Agencies) welcomed the Commission's focus on promoting labour market reforms in its 'Agenda for New Skills and Jobs'.
Denis Pennel, managing director of Eurociett, told EurActiv: "Inclusive labour markets must balance work security with labour market flexibility that will contribute to job creation and labour market participation. The Agency Work industry offers an excellent role model for both principles by bringing people into work and also enhancing their skills to enable them to transition within the labour market."
According to Pennel: "The new reality of labour markets needs a diversity of contractual arrangements that also provide suitable work security. To this end social partners and collective labour agreements can play an important role in ensuring the transferability of rights and social benefits."
"If Europe is to reach the 2020 employment targets, member states must strengthen the cooperation between public and private employment services and also lift any unjustified restrictions on temporary agencies that are preventing the sector from helping people get back to work. Strengthening drivers of job creation, such as the agency work industry, should be the central priority in economic recovery."
The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) broadly supported the Commission's proposals, but said the 'Agenda for New Skills and Jobs' needed to be placed in a new employment strategy and a new labour market which observes and respects labour standards and social rights.
According to ETUC: "Europe's ability to play an active role in the global economy depends upon the up-skilling of workers, within the context of an inclusive labour market. For labour markets to function properly, suitable regulation is needed in terms of uniform frameworks, transparent methods and accreditation bodies responsible for the certification of skills."
The confederation warns that "the long-proclaimed European goal of lifelong learning contrasts sharply with the situation on the ground," and insists that "access for all to continuing vocational and educational training needs to improve markedly".
The European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) published a policy brief on 'New Skills for New Jobs', written by Jacky Fayolle. It concludes that European societies need to find a balance between two parallel objectives: first, strengthening the skills of the whole working population; and second, investing in top-class education and training of the most talented individuals.
Fayolle writes: "Today's employee world is subject to forces of dispersion and fragmentation. This is a fundamental challenge to cohesion, and not just of a social nature. It also determines the effectiveness and sustainability of economic development, which cannot rely in the long term merely on a narrow-based elite harvesting the excess profits of unequal growth."
The European Youth Forum welcomed the Commission's 'Agenda for New Skills and Jobs' and in particular the proposal to re-examine the principles of flexicurity. The Youth Forum is concerned about what it calls the "precariousness" of the situation faced by young people on the labour market, and is calling for reforms of social security systems "in order to better protect young workers entering the labour market and/or with short-term contracts".
The Youth Forum called for the introduction of targets in relation to youth unemployment, alongside the target for adults aged between 20 and 64 years. It urges member states "to commit in the National Reform Programmes to a speciﬁc youth employment target and measures to address the quality of transition from education to employment and promote youth autonomy".
The Forum believes that "young people have a lot of potential to contribute to smart, sustainable and inclusive growth". It calls for "an encouraging and reassuring policy framework" including "guidance, income support, security and the reconciliation of professional and private life".
Solidar, a European network of social NGOs, is supportive of the Commission's efforts on skills and training. "Solidar shares the Commission's view of bringing people into employment by investing in the development of skills, competences and knowledge," the organisation's secretary-general, Conny Reuter, told EurActiv.
Reuter continued: "Social, health and education services and infrastructures, providing personal professional and vocational training, non-formal and informal learning, counseling and careers guidance, are crucial to empower people to participate fully in society."
"To reduce poverty and social exclusion and promote social cohesion, it is essential that everyone has equal access to quality ‘public’ education, without distinction of any national or social origin," he added.
According to Solidar, skills, competences and knowledge acquired through non-formal and informal learning should be recognised by social partners as part of the strategy to bridge education 'gaps' and hence contribute to increasing people's life opportunities.