New Skills New Jobs Initiative

European Trade Unions Initiatives on New Skills and New Jobs for Europe

A conference organized by the European Trade Union Confederation – ETUC was held recently in Brussels entitled “For a Trade Union version of the New Skills, New Jobs Initiative”.  The central theme of the conference was that the severity of the financial crisis has introduced a considerable degree of uncertainty about the future of the world’s economy.  In order to put Europe on the road to recovery it is essential to enhance human capital and employability by upgrading skills.  However, the upgrading of skills is not enough, ensuring a better match between the supply of skills and labour demand is equally important.

The conference was opened by John Monks, ETUC General Secretary who stated that it is quite difficult to attract trade union interest to skills and training, however, it is becoming an increasingly crucial subject for the trade union movement.  The topic was first launched by the European Union in 2008 and is one of the seven flagship initiatives in the EU’s 2020 strategy.  The ETUC has been critical of the strategy, stating that it is too long-term and the ETUC would have preferred a shorter five-year strategy.

The subject of forecasting and anticipating labour market needs is crucial as Europe has to contend with the challenges of globalization and the demographic shock of an ageing population with EU Member States currently raising the pensionable age to 65 years of age or more.  Another factor that will impinge on the labour market is the transition to a low-carbon economy.

The EU has to ensure that the lack of credibility that it was accused of with the failure to reach its objectives as outlined in the Lisbon Treaty does not repeat itself with the Europe 2020 strategy.  There are several challenges that must be overcome – as the EU is gradually emerging from the recession, job creation has been mainly limited to precarious work mainly supplied by temporary work agencies; another problem is that although the EU Member States Welfare Systems have survived the onslaught brought about by the recession, another economic downturn would put the whole Welfare System structure in jeopardy; furthermore, politically, migrant workers are getting most of the blame for the recession, thus fuelling nationalistic and xenophobic sentiment throughout the EU.

The EU has to respond to all this by displaying flexibility and by introducing the concept of flexicurity, however, not in a way that only workers have to shoulder the burden of the sacrifices that have to be made.  The focus should be on growth and job creation rather than austerity measures (in fact this was the central theme of the ETUC Demonstration that was held in Brussels on 29th September 2010).

Following this introduction, the first speaker was Profs. Mike Campbell OBE – Director of Research and Policy in the UK Commission for Employment and Skills who stated that we are living in a deeply interconnected world where the rest of the world is ‘skilling up’ and therefore the EU has to follow suit.  At the end of the day, the prosperity of a nation or a regional bloc for that matter depends on the answers to two simple questions: How many people are working? How productive are they?  A highly skilled workforce will positively affect individuals, the economy and society in general – there is a strong correlation between skills/jobs and job earnings and prospects.  The EU’s ‘inconvenient truth’ is that our workforce is not sufficiently skilled – 75 millions workers in the EU do not have any skills at all but even those with high qualifications do not have the qualifications required in the EU at present.  There is a mismatch between the skills that we have and the skills that we need.  Unless the EU acts quickly and comes up with an Action Program that is strictly adhered to, the EU will not be able to survive as an economic bloc in the future.

After drawing this bleak vignette, Profs. Campbell made an impassioned appeal for the EU to act on this subject and proposed the following line of action: (a) Provide the right incentives for individuals and employers; (b) To bring the worlds of education and business closer together; (c) Develop the right mix of skills required in the future; (d) To better anticipate future skills required.  As regards the role of trade unions on this subject, the speaker urged trade unions to support the development of a more knowledge-based economy with special attention or focus on young people and disadvantaged groups who need to be provided with employment and training opportunities to prevent their social exclusion.  Trade unions must insist that as part of the Education and Training objectives of the EU’s 2020 vision – training and education systems are to be accessible to all with a focus on the development of people’s knowledge, skills and abilities in a broad range of subjects, social, civic and cultural capabilities as well as creativity, innovation and teamwork skills.

The next speaker was Professor Andre’ Sapir from the Universite’ Libre de Bruxelles and Bruegel Institute who started by saying that he was impressed by the very poor way that the EU as a regional economic bloc was performing during the economic crisis.  When the sub-prime mortgage crisis first hit the US in 2008 it was thought that the EU would not be seriously affected.  In actual fact, what happened was that in the worst year of the recession – 2009 – the EU performed the worst amongst advanced economies, seeing its GDP shrink by 4.1% compared to a decrease of 3.2% in other developed economies.

The economic crisis has been a catalyst that has witnessed an acceleration of trends that existed before the onset of the recession.  Globalization, ageing populations and the increasing competitiveness from the BRIC countries (Brasil, Russia, India and China) and other developing nations that are catching up with developing countries, all these factors have been highlighted by the crisis.  The difference between the Great Depression of the 1930s and today’s recession is that there will not be a growth rate of 4.5% in GDP each year as was witnessed in the post-war era up to the early 1970s – this is mainly attributable to the ageing population and higher health care costs.  The speaker predicted the following growth rates for the EU in the coming years: Advanced economies: 1.5% to 2%, Eastern Europe: 3% to 4% and Southern Europe: 1% to 1.5% – the coming years will reveal whether this prediction is accurate or not.

The rest of the conference then focused on a discussion of a study conducted by Group Alpha – Centre Etudes & Prospective entitled: The New Skills for New Jobs Initiative: Between late Lisbon Strategy and embryonic Europe 2020.  The New Skills New Jobs initiative was launched in 2008 by the EU in order to assess future skills requirements up to 2020 and combine them with a new industrial policy.  The goal of the initiative is to replace defensive and reactive restructuring action with a forward-planning and proactive approach to human skills and productive specializations.  The ability of European countries to adapt in a positive way to new competitive and environmental conditions depends on the availability of appropriate skills and on the upgrading of competencies of all workers.

The study analyzed the results of a project launched launched by CEDEFOP (European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training) that made the following forecasts regarding the European job market scenario: (a) Considerable mobility on the labour market is to be expected, despite a relatively pessimistic scenario as to net employment changes (compared to pre-crisis trends.  Around 80 million total job openings (expansion and replacement demand) are to be created in the period 2010 and 2020 to be compared with 7 million jobs to be created in the same period; (b) There is a risk of increased job polarization (highly skilled occupations versus elementary occupations) but job openings during this period expected to be positive for all occupations, even those industries facing net job losses; (c) Increase in the (formal) qualification level of those in employment, of the apparent qualification requirements of jobs (formal qualification by occupation), but substantial number of total job openings for jobs requiring low and intermediate qualification levels; (d) A very pessimistic scenario for low qualified people; there are serious risks of labour market imbalances (both in terms of oversupply and shortage).

This last point was in fact highlighted by one of the speakers who quoted a Communication by the European Commission entitled : New Skills for New Jobs – Anticipating and matching labour market and skills needs dated 16.12.2008 that emphasizes that skills upgrading is crucial for equity since low skilled workers are more vulnerable in the labour market and were the first to be affected by the crisis.  Upgrading skills is not just a luxury for the highly qualified in high-tech jobs: it is a necessity for all.  Low-qualified adults are seven times less likely to participate in lifelong learning (LLL) than those with high educational attainment; too little is done to increase and adapt the skills of an ageing workforce.  The education, training and employment policies of the Member States must focus on increasing and adapting skills and providing better learning opportunities at all levels, to develop a workforce that is highly skilled and responsive to the needs of the economy.  At the same time, employers have an interest in ensuring and investing in human capital and improving their human resources management.  Furthermore, gender equality is a key factor to responding to new skill needs.

These were some extracts from the interventions made during this two-day conference that brought together a number of experts and trade unionists from across the EU.  Although some of the experts paint a rather grim picture of the future economic scenario in the EU, the conference ended with a ray of hope that the EU of 2020 will display a highly skilled workforce well-prepared to face the challenges of the years to come.  It is fitting at this juncture to end on a positive note by quoting the words of Pope Paul VI in his 1967 encyclical entitle Popolorum Progressio when he speaks about education in the following extract: ”We can even say that economic growth is dependent on social progress, the goal to which it aspires; and that basic education is the first objective for any nation seeking to develop itself. Lack of education is as serious as lack of food; the illiterate is a starved spirit. When someone learns how to read and write, he is equipped to do a job and to shoulder a profession, to develop self confidence and realize that he can progress along with others. As We said in Our message to the UNESCO meeting at Teheran, literacy is the “first and most basic tool for personal enrichment and social integration; and it is society’s most valuable tool for furthering development and economic progress.” This message is as relevant in today’s globalized world as it was in 1967, literacy and education are the key to succeeding and surviving in the modern labour market.


Dr Adrian Borg is the General Secretary of the Malta Union of Bank Employees (MUBE) and a delegate on the Council of the Confederation of Malta Trade Unions (CMTU)

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