All eyes on the EU Skills Agenda

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Digital skills and transferring knowledge and know-how are all-important. [Brad Flickinger/Flickr]

Unemployment rates continue to run high across Europe; 10 June saw the European Commission publish its much-anticipated Skills Agenda. It is a welcome step towards addressing this challenge, and one that will need to be further built upon, writes Alba Xhixha.

Alba Xhixha is Senior Communications and Government Affairs Manager at Aspect Consulting.

Despite a plethora of policy initiatives, unemployment rates have only decreased slightly – at 18.8%, the youth joblessness rate is more than double that of the overall population. The situation is equally challenging for older citizens, who are more likely to suffer from long-term unemployment and are at greater risk of poverty.

Paradoxically, despite the ‘over-education’ in Europe, two million vacancies remain unfilled – particularly in STEM areas such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This has huge implications for sectors such as Big Data Analytics for example. Indeed, 40% of European employers say they cannot find people with the skills they need to grow and innovate. PwC’s Annual CEO Survey, published this year, also reveals that 72% of CEOs globally are concerned about the availability of key skills.

To make matters worse, job markets are being transformed by technology and the impact of automation on employment will only increase over time. A recent study by Deloitte showed that around 114,000 jobs in the legal sector alone are likely to become automated, and another 39% of jobs are at “high risk” of being made redundant by machines in the next two decades.

With this in mind, and with an increasingly large skills gap, creating jobs is a bigger challenge than ever for policymakers, especially as labour markets become more sophisticated.  The required skill-sets needed are now increasingly broad – employers need people with soft skills who are problem-solvers, analytical thinkers, multilingual, multicultural, entrepreneurial, tech-savvy and team players.

The newly launched Skills Agenda recognises that skills development is crucial for meeting this fundamental challenge. This is not to say that Europeans are under-educated: on the contrary, the real question is what type of education we are getting, and whether it adequately prepares us for the labour market.

The skills mismatch is symptomatic of a larger and much more fundamental problem – our inability to accurately anticipate what the labour market needs and adjust our education systems accordingly. The Skills Agenda’s ‘Blueprint for Sectoral Cooperation on Skills’, which aims to improve skills intelligence and address skills gaps in specific economic sectors, seeks to address these challenges. Similarly, the ‘Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition’ action point, which envisages closer collaboration between education policy makers and employers to agree on which digitals skills are needed and how to develop them, is a crucial piece in the policymaking jigsaw.

The Commission should also be applauded for its clear vision on ensuring the skills of migrants and refugees are accurately profiled and enhanced so Europe can fully harness their potential.  Studies, like the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor UK report, show that migrants are more likely to be entrepreneurs than those born locally.

But if the Skills Agenda is to maximise its impact then we also need smarter education – an approach that addresses technical skill gaps, fosters closer collaboration with the private sector, is more hands-on in nature and one that promotes inter-generational exchange, outside the traditional classroom. Different demographic groups possess different skills-sets and all age groups benefit from a transfer of know-how, experience and ideas, thus narrowing the skills gap. Smart education should also focus on promoting an entrepreneurial culture to ensure that both young and old equally have the opportunity to remain economically active whatever the future holds.

Regardless of which side of the political divide one is on, labour market mobility is today a reality and should therefore also be an important part of the Agenda, as some labour markets may have a surplus of some skills but a shortage of others. Policy-makers and education systems therefore have a ‘’duty of care’’ to prepare the next generation to embrace the opportunities offered by the European Single Market and the right to the freedom of movement. That includes focusing on foreign language skills, overseas traineeship programs and the development of soft skills – flexibility, multiculturalism, team spirit and open-mindedness.

Employers will certainly become more demanding and so should we of ourselves. Being prepared is critical to a successful future. The Skills Agenda is a welcome first step in that direction. Its true value, however, will be evaluated based on its ability to deliver real change.

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