Investing in Skills in Europe’s regions and cities

The European Committee of the Regions hosted on April 25th the event “Investing in Skills in Europe’s regions and cities”, co-organized alongside the European Commission, DG for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion (DG EMPL). The event, carried out within the framework of the European Year of Skills, focused “on the critical role of skills development and the transformative power of upskilling and reskilling in bolstering the socio-economic fabric of Europe’s diverse regions and cities”.

The event, moderated in its entirety by João Santos (expert in education and training, and former DHoU at the European Commission, DG for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion (DGEMPL)), was composed of three panel-sessions preceded by a few opening speeches and followed by some concluding remarks.

After a short introduction by Mr. Santos, Tanya Hristova (Mayor of Gabrovo, Bulgaria) opened the event with a welcome speech in her capacity as Chair of the SEDEC Commission of the Committee of Regions. She stressed the need of an adaptable, resilient and prepared workforce for the changes of the labour market, and how apprenticeships, vocational education and training and lifelong learning can contribute to it. Then, it was turn for institutional representatives’ keynote speeches. Vasco Alves Cordeiro (President of the CoR) centred his speech on the need of an ambitious and comprehensive approach for skills development in order to address the current skill-shortage in such pungent matters such as digital transformation or green transition. Andriana Sukova (Acting Director General DG Employment, Social Affairs, European Commission), while expressing the importance of further efforts, highlighted the success of the implementation of the European Year of Skills, and pointed out key elements in this regard such as the collaboration of partners at different levels, funding sources (European Social Fund Plus or the Recovery and Resilience Facility) or the Centres of Vocational Excellence. Dragoş Pîslaru (Member of the European Parliament and Chair of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs) talked about upskilling and reskilling as means to push social policy forward, addressing issues such as the EU loosing 1,000,000 workers a year due to demographic change by activation measures, the need to localize such action counting with public-private partnership to address the specific skills needed, the need of invest in young people (the best ally on issues such as green transition or digital transformation) and, overall, thinking of skills as a social investment instead of as an expense and, accordingly, building permanent funding.

Once done with the introductory keynote speeches, the first panel session began under the title “The key role of upskilling and reskilling for local and regional development”. It counted with the participation of members of different commissions in relation to the European Year of Skills. Tanya Hristova (Chair of the SEDEC commission) stressed the need of localizing the policies, getting all stakeholders involved, taking into consideration the social dimension of such policies and promoting lifelong learning. Getting into the topic of reaching marginalized groups she mentioned options such as carrying out training in different facilities and formats, engaging with community leaders and organizations to address limitations, providing side-services for issues such as childcare or language-barriers and, overall, monitoring and evaluating policies. Kate Feeney (Member of a Local Executive: Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council, rapporteur on the CoR opinion on the SME Relief Package & BEFIT, CoR member, ECON commission) emphasized the positive effect of upskilling and reskilling in boosting economic growth and competitiveness. In this regard, an accessible, rapid and effective delivery of specialized skills is needed, specially when looking at issues such as green transition (for which innovative STEM knowledge has a central role) and aiming at targeting skills gaps. Giuseppe Varacalli (Member of Gerace Municipal Council, CoR rapporteur for the opinion on Legal Migration – Attracting skills and talent to the EU, CIVEX commission) focused on the potential that migrants can bring referring to some real-life cases in his region (Calabria). Overall, he pointed out the resources that those migrants bring, the need to integrate them locally, the need to work on getting equivalencies for immigrants’ qualifications, developing also minors’ capacities and talents and communicating better the ways of legal migration in order to be able to get in a better and safer way those valuable professionals.

The second session was titled “Regional Skills Intelligence: Driving Growth and Prosperity in Cities and Regions”. Kate Maguire (Head of Division, LEED Committee, OECD) opened the session by explaining the role of skills intelligence: how it helps match workers to jobs as well as leading towards a common understanding of the skills situation for all of the policy agendas involved in it, and, that its focus is both in new/future jobs as well as changing skills in already existing jobs. Caroline Macet (Chair of the PES Network, Deputy Director General of PES Belgium/Actiris.PES Network), focusing on Public Employment Services, highlighted the need to work at a regional and local level, as they all have their demographical and labour market specificities, and addressed the difference in approaches, methods, resources, accessibility and availability for such analysis in each country. The main point of François Decoster’s (rapporteur of the CoR Opinion on Skills and Talent Mobility, CoR member) intervention was the existing disparity between the possibilities of mobility for students in contrast with apprentices/practitioners coming from vocational education and training, and how VET needs people dedicated to the collection of data on needs and promotion of mobility of VET learners. Iñigo Araiztegui (Director of the Internationalisation Department of TKNIKA, VET provider), commenting on some activities in which Tknika is involved, summed up the conclusions gathered from an analysis done within LCAMP in the Basque Country based on interviews with companies regarding 12 specific jobs: 1) while jobs (in their name/profile) are quite stable they do experience internal change regarding the skills they require (“You can have a plumber 50 years ago, you can have a plumber 10 years ago and you will have a plumber in 2025 for sure […] but the skills they need to be plumber can change”), 2) in the field of manufacturing there is plenty of employment: more employment than people for it, 3) the companies value versatility, but the soft skills for that are important only when they come with technical skills (“No one will hire a good communicator only. They want an electrician who can communicate well.”), and, 4) there is a demand for specialization, but this should come only after the basic technical skills as there is a risk of losing touch with reality otherwise. Denis Leythienne (Deputy Head of Unit, ESTAT.F.3 ‘Labour market and lifelong learning’ EUROSTAT) talked about the two main challenges faced in the field of data on skills: that skills are dependent on occupation and that there is a wide range of possible skills which makes them really difficult to collect in surveys. He explained how EUROSTAT is trying to overcome these and offer a job and country-specific adequate picture of skills via 1) data from web scraping from job advertisements to get the most requested skills and 2) indicators on labour shortages by combining data on advertisements with data from the labour force survey. Stelina Chatzichristou (Expert, Skills trends and intelligence, Department for VET and Skills, CEDEFOP) focusedon the process of translating data into substantial information for policymaking. For that the limitations on resoures for each region to develop their own comprehensive set of data should be considered, as well as the need for partnerships to address different issues, and, in general it should be kept in mind how even if the data we have is not perfect it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use it.

The third and final panel session addressed the topic of “Private-Public Partnerships for Upskilling and Reskilling at the local and regional level”. Julie Fionda (Deputy Head of Unit ‘Skills Agenda’, DG EMPL, European Commission) went over the partnerships that can flourish under joint initiatives such as the Pact of Skills highlighting three benefits of getting involved in these that the members themselves pointed out: 1) improving skill monitoring and anticipation in their sector, 2) enhancing quality and increasing the volume of up- and reskilling opportunities, and, 3) creating more inclusive up- and reskilling activities. Marie-Louise Rönnmark (Member of Umeå Municipal Council, CoR member) stressed the importance of lifelong learning defining it as a way to get dressed for success and build a good life. She also took a look at the successful example of Northern Sweden in terms of creating jobs, leading initiatives on green transition or promoting culture, creativity and innovation. Michaela Palasova (Head of the Trnava Region Brussels Representation Office, Automotive Skills Alliance Regional Implementation Working Group Co-Lead Automotive Regions Alliance, Pact for Skills) presented the work of the Automotive Skills Alliance. She touched on projects directly supported by the Pact of Skills and, with it, on how it is collaborating on transformation on the ground, as well as on the main objectives of the Alliance: addressing skills needs in a cooperative manner (providing a space of partnership and tools) and working on policy input to voice the needs on transformation. Inês Rodrigues (Senior officer in the Social Impact & Skills Financing Unit, European Investment Fund (EIF)) explained the model of the European Investment Fund in its goal of making funding more accessible and companies with skills development. The basics of it imply working with intermediaries that will be able to guarantee funding in a way that will increase investment, market awareness, access to education (focusing also on more marginalized groups) and, overall, support both the supply and demand sides of education. Pieter Moerman (Director of Platform Talent for Technology and one of the founders of the Katapult network, CoVE) shared a few insights on some factors that lead to successful or unsuccessful partnerships, stressing the importance of promoting co-ownerships in them involving everybody (also the sometimes overlooked small and medium size businesses or teachers), avoiding a dominance of the public partners and building trust and interest this way. Addressing the European efforts in this area, he insisted on the need of 1) investing in it as the European Year of Skills is nothing but a start and partnerships – and COVEs specifically – take time to be built, 2) ‘forcing’ the partnerships to focus not only on the “low-hanging fruits” (EQF levels 4-5) but also on the marginalised groups and lower levels, and, 3) supporting also the community of practice for the vocational centres so that they can network and learn from each other.

The concluding remarks by Thomas Wobben (Director for Legislative Works, European Committee of the Regions) and Manuela Geleng (Director of Jobs and Skills, DG EMPL, DG Employment, Social Affairs, European Commission) closed the event. The first, brought up six concluding points:

  1. There are clear challenges regarding access to skills and knowing what skills are needed.
  2. Training and skills are local, and mapping is essential.
  3. Training and skills are an investment.
  4. Skills are part of a wider regional development strategy.
  5. Skills are linked to place-based policies.
  6. There is a need for a joint approach on just transition. Also, across borders.

The second reviewed the topics of each session synthesizing some take-away for it: while acknowledging the disparities of skills she expressed the need to ensure investment for accessible upskilling and reskilling, regarded skills intelligence as a key tool to match the aspirations of people to need of the companies in a situation when jobs are looking for people and not the other way around, and, highlighted the importance of a more systematic public-private partnership to address such huge challenges.

In conclusion, this event underlined the relevance of skills, specially at the regional and local level. Their role in achieving economic and social goals was presented in different areas: green transition, digital transformation, social justice and inclusion, etc. But so were the challenges that are faced for skill development: from the magnitude of the challenges that the skills development in itself aims to address to those that skills intelligence measurements face, going through the limitations that the current support for it might have today or in the future. All of this only underlines the common conclusion that this end of the Year of Skills is only the start of a wave of more decisive efforts to foster skills development.

We cannot but thank the Committee of Regions and European Commission, DG for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion for the organisation of such an enriching event, as well as, of course, all of the speakers that brought their valuable ‘piece of the cake’ for addressing the skills development situation in European regions and cities.

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