9 December 2020 - This article was written by Glenda Quintini, Senior Economist, OECD. Published on the OECD Skills and Work Blog.
Trends in technology, demography and globalisation affect the way work is organised and carried out, spurring rapid changes in the skills required at work. These changes underscore the importance of adult learning to help individuals maintain and upgrade their skills throughout their working lives.
The recently published 2020 Global Deal flagship report, ‘Social Dialogue, Skills and Covid-19’, is dedicated to the role of social dialogue and the active participation of the social partners (i.e. the representatives of employers and workers) in fostering adult learning systems that are future ready. It documents how dialogue and interaction between trade unions and employers is instrumental in increasing adult learning coverage, fostering the participation of under-represented groups, promoting flexibility and guidance, aligning training with labour market needs, ensuring training quality, and financing training.
The social partners have a crucial role to play in each of these key dimensions as shown in Figure 1, from the development of adult-learning policy to its implementation. Employers, for example, have a strong interest in ensuring that adult learning is aligned with their needs and will work towards this goal when involved, while recognising the value more generally of training for keeping their employees engaged and motivated. Trade unions, in turn, represent workers’ interests and strive for an adult-learning system that gives equitable access to learning opportunities and equips individuals with skills that are beneficial for them, including transferable skills (OECD, 2019). Throughout workers’ careers, the social partners work alongside other actors such as different levels of government, training providers, public employment services and civil society organisations.
Social partner involvement in the adult-learning system varies considerably across countries. In some countries, the social partners are heavily involved in the definition and management of the training system. An example of strong social partner involvement is Iceland, where the social partners jointly define and manage the training system through the Education and Training Centre (Fræðslumiðstöð atvinnulífsins). The Centre identifies training needs, develops training programmes and curricula, develops and monitors the validation of non-formal and informal learning, supervises career guidance, develops quality assurance measures, and collects data on the target group. It also administers the Education Fund (Fræðslusjóð), which is funded through a levy paid by employers.
Even in systems where the involvement of the social partners is not overarching, they play a crucial role in the dimensions listed above. The 2020 Global Deal flagship report discusses this extensively through a number of relevant examples, including:
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the role of the social partners in strengthening the resilience of labour markets and skills systems (see this blog post). Social dialogue played a central role by shaping agreements on short time work whereby business refrained from firing workers, trade unions accepted reduced working hours and lower monthly wages, and governments stepped in financially to make up part of the difference in the initial wage. On several occasions, these arrangements included provisions to use the period of low activity to organise further training. In the Netherlands for example, the tripartite agreement of 27 August conditioned employer financial support on encouraging workers to participate in training. Concerned about the impact of the pandemic on apprenticeships, the social partners in Germany concluded an “Alliance for Apprenticeships” in May, including financial support for companies in return for a sufficient number of apprenticeship places. Social dialogue thus acted as a crisis circuit-breaker that prevented massive job destruction while at the same time preparing workers for the post- pandemic recovery by investing and upgrading their skills.
The way forward
The 2020 Global Deal flagship report provides some directions for the effective involvement of the social partners in skills systems going forward:
OECD (2019), Getting Skills Right: Future-Ready Adult Learning Systems, Getting Skills Right, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264311756-en.