Individual learning accounts can make the right to training tangible for all but EU member states will need to raise their commitment.
The European Union’s recent focus on public investment, minimum wages and the conditions of platform work are important steps towards implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights. The proposal from the European Commission for a recommendation by the Council of the EU on individual learning accounts outlines how member states can also take the pillar’s first principle—the right to education, training and life-long learning—off the page.
The ambition for significant progress is there, as shown by the headline target that at least 60 per cent of adults should participate in training every year by 2030—up from only 37 per cent in 2016—endorsed by the EU heads of state and government in their Porto Declaration of May 2021. But success will require member states to translate this ambition into a significant increase in the public commitment to training.
To this end, the commission proposes that member states set up personal accounts, with adequate training entitlements, for all adults of working age. Account owners could receive additional entitlements from their employer or other funders and use these for training, skills validation or career guidance whenever they wished. The accounts would be embedded in an enabling framework with a national registry of opportunities eligible for funding from them—with a strong role for social partners in governance to ensure labour-market relevance—as well as access to career guidance and validation and paid training leave for employed adults.
Social partners key
As highlighted by trade unions, individual learning accounts are not the only way to implement the right to training. Nine out of ten job-related training activities in the EU are at least partly sponsored by the current employer and/or take place during working hours, highlighting the key role social partners play in providing access. Indeed, social-partner responsibility for training needs to be further strengthened for successful and socially fair digital and green transitions.
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But policy-makers need to be aware of the limits of employer-organised training. First, many adults have less access or none at all, because they are in atypical forms of work, work for companies which do not provide training or are unemployed. Hence while 55 per cent of employees of large companies have participated in training in the last 12 months, this applies to only 29 per cent of adults not in permanent employment.
Secondly, what employers offer does not always correspond with what workers want. Eight out of ten adults who did not participate in learning in the past year ‘did not want’ to and nine out of ten adults say that if training were better adapted to individual learning needs this would encourage more participation.
Some of the underlying challenges are structural. Investment in long-term staff development is challenging for smaller companies in particular, and a focus on short-term productivity in a worker’s current role need not be aligned with her professional ambitions or the training needs flowing from broader labour-market trends. The digital transition increases the importance of transversal and social skills on labour markets—but the benefits of transversal skills are by definition widespread, leading to a risk of insufficient investment by the current employer.
Individual learning accounts can address these limits of employer-organised training. They also allow full advantage to be taken of recent advances in digital and blended learning for more personalised training.
There are, of course, concerns to address. One is that individual learning accounts may not reach some of the groups who may benefit most from training, such as those with low formal qualifications. But properly designed accounts can do so, as shown by the recent experience of the French Compte personnel de formation (CPF). While those with low qualifications initially participated less, they are no longer under-represented following a 2019 reform which simplified use of the accounts (including via a phone application). As with the CPF, the commission proposes a ‘universal but differentiated’ approach, whereby groups with additional training needs receive extra support to encourage participation.
A second concern is that individual learning accounts may shift responsibility for training on to individuals and crowd out employer support. The principle that account owners freely select training among eligible opportunities however ensures that the accounts fill the gaps between, rather than substitute for, employer-organised training.
Guaranteeing access to guidance, validation and a registry of recognised training opportunities makes it easier for individuals to navigate the market for continuing training—often fragmented and opaque—providing reassurance that training will be worth their time. It can also encourage standardisation of training content, facilitating the recognition of skills. History suggests that in times of rapidly changing skill requirements such standardisation can increase workers’ bargaining power and wages, by improving their ability to communicate acquired skills to potential employers.
Rather than shifting responsibility on to individuals, individual learning accounts can hence translate the collective responsibility for the right to training into real opportunities for them.
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A more fundamental question is to what extent policy-makers should emphasise training as a solution to current labour-market challenges, given that innovation and technology adoption can also be shaped by policy decisions. Should workers adjust to jobs, or jobs adjust to workers?
But the most promising road to more good jobs likely combines policies at the ‘post-production’ stage (such as macroeconomic pursuit of full employment) and the production stage (such as minimum wages) with policies at the ‘pre-production’ stage (such as individual learning accounts). Through this lens, warnings about a dark side to meritocracy and of the need to focus on the direction of technological change as well as increases in labour productivity represent useful checks on whether a policy mix makes good use of all the available policy levers to create more good jobs.
They should not, however, stand in the way of ambitious action by member states to make the right to training a reality for all.
David Kunst is a policy officer in the Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion of the European Commission. His work focuses on policies to support skills and employment. All views expressed are personal.