Cedefop director: One in four EU adults is caught in ‘low-skills trap’


One in four adults in Europe lack basic numeracy and literacy skills, impeding them from finding work. While EU-boosted vocational training tries to bridge this gap, EU countries urgently need to tackle the mismatch between education and the job market, says James Calleja.

James Calleja was recently appointed as director of the EU agency Cedefop, responsible for the coordination and development of vocational education and training in the European Union. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Laurens Cerulus.

Offering unemployed European citizens training for specific trades, known as vocational training, is often mentioned as a cure against current economic woes like unemployment. But how well are the EU’s programmes working?

Cedefop’s role is to transform policy at the European level into instruments which member states can adapt to their specific contexts. If you look at the programmes themselves, they are there to encourage member states to achieve the objectives – also national ones. In reality, different member states are cruising at different speeds. Some are still on the runway and require more assistance.

The existing programmes are there as indicators, as guides for policy making or for legislation at a later stage. I strongly believe that all of these policies and programmes will never find any solid ground unless member states – and all member states, without exceptions – develop them.

Take the youth guarantee: this is an initiative that will re-launch the idea of apprenticeships, but also pinpoint the need to give young people information on career choices. In fact, the economic loss of having 7.5 million young EU citizens out of work or training is €150 billion every year, according to figures by the EU agency Eurofound. That’s 1.2% of the union’s gross domestic product (GDP).

So youth unemployment is costing us a lot of money. It is best to invest in these existing schemes – we need to put our money where our mouth is.

There is a mismatch in many countries between youngsters’ choices for higher education, and the market’s needs? Is this mismatch something that can be solved by vocational training alone?

Well, higher education is also addressing the requirements [of the market] in its own way. Higher education is moving in the direction where work experience is seen as a valid contributor to a student’s experience and knowledge.

There could be a mismatch between people coming out of university and the jobs they manage to get. We are entering into a whole critical discussion on whether universities should open up to all applicants in different courses, and we have to strike a balance between the needs of young people on the one hand, and labour market needs on the other.

Our research shows that by 2025, more jobs will require medium-level education. So shall we keep persisting on high-level education or address this need instead? These are political dilemmas, but the figures show that there is a need to tackle them.

How big is the mismatch between graduates and the labour market?

The mismatch is there: we clearly see that many young people do not find jobs they’ve studied for. The labour market offers different opportunities.

For example, the OECD’s adult skills surveys (PIAAC studies) show that one out of four European adults lacks literacy, numeracy and IT skills. Something must have happened during the compulsory education trajectory that has to be compensated in vocational training.

Prevention is better than cure, and the mismatch that comes later on could be mitigated by having key competences [taught early on].

Some have objected to vocational training contracts and programmes, arguing that they keep unemployed, highly educated youngsters into low-wage and low-cost jobs. Is there a danger in creating such an intern or trainee culture?

I do not agree that all types of contracts or programmes could lead young unemployed into low-wage and low-cost jobs. Many employers request experience from young people – something that these youngsters find difficult to list.

So is it an exploitation of young people? My personal opinion is that young people need experience. But this can be offered in various forms: the quality should tally with what a person really needs in order to sharpen their competences.

In an environment in which this is standardized, quality-assured and monitored by approved trainers, I think this is the right way to enter the labour market. Apprenticeship schemes provide a good combination of study and work experience.

What fields currently require the biggest focus of the EU’s training programmes?

One of the key fields here is information technology, or IT. We need more people to solve problems through IT. And people who have done work experience are more attracted to learn such skills.

But – you’d be surprised – literacy and numeracy are two other areas where we need better trained people. The PIAAC studies show that 25% of labour market adults have low skills in literacy and numeracy. And so they are captured in a so-called ‘low-skills trap’: once you are in this situation, it is very unlikely that you will participate in future learning activities.

Before we compensate with vocational training, we must look into what is happening on the side of compulsory education. Overall, students should get the skills they need, also because after this stage all efforts are compensatory or remedial and costly.

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