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Opinion and Comment

Ensuring Good Training, Bolstering Continuing Education and Training, Shaping the Future: For a Right to Continuing Vocational Training!

Text: Regine Geraedts, Bremen Chamber of Employees, Roman Lutz, Saarland Chamber of Labour

The Saarland Chamber of Labour, the Bremen Chamber of Employees, the Luxembourg Chambre des salariés and the Austrian Chambers of Labour have drafted a joint, transnational position paper calling for a European continuing education and training strategy. Alongside stepped-up continuing education and training efforts, they expect reliable and robust framework conditions and legal regulations.

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The proportion of the population aged 25 to 64 participating in initial and continuing education and training currently averages 11.1 per cent in the EU, clearly falling short of the EU’s target of 15 per cent.

This means that we need a European continuing education and training strategy that responds to the challenges of the structural changes the Euro­pean Union is currently undergoing as a result of the digital transformation. A forward-looking culture of continuing education and training (CET) needs to be established in Europe. For employees, initial and continuing vocational education and training is an important key to being able to cope with and shape changes in the world of work.

This is what a joint position paper entitled “Gut ausbilden, Weiterbildung stärken, die Zukunft gestalten: Für ein Recht auf berufliche Weiterbildung!”1 [Ensuring good training, bolstering continuing education and training, shaping the future: For a right to continuing vocational training!] drafted by the Saarland Chamber of Labour, the Bremen Chamber of Employees, the Luxembourg Chambre des salariés and the Austrian Chambers of Labour calls for. These employee advocacy organisations represent and promote the social, economic, professional and cultural interests of workers and employees in their respective countries and federal states.

Good continuing education and training takes time and money

In spite of the importance of continuing vocational training to society as a whole, employees currently foot a large share of the costs themselves. The time and money individual employees have to invest is often a challenge and discourages many from participating at all. This is why policies are needed to ensure that the costs of continuing education and training are shared. Funding for individual continuing education and training for employees needs to factor in both the loss of earnings incurred and the costs of the training measure itself. Groups that are currently less involved in continuing vocational training need to be particularly supported. These include low-paid, low-skilled and part-time or precarious workers. These are also the groups that can benefit the most from participation. This is why they need privileged access so that continuing education and training can make its contribution to reducing social inequality. A wage replacement benefit for the period of continuing education and training to compensate for loss of earnings makes sense. The wage replacement benefit should be based on previous income and be proportionally higher for low earners. But continuing education and training also takes time, so a right to continuing education and training must guarantee statutory provisions to exempt employees from work. Only then can workers find the time they need to engage in continuing vocational training if they cannot secure the support of their employer or if this does not align with the employer’s interests. Here, either a temporary exemption from work or a reduction in contractual working hours should be enshrined in law. A right for employees to return to their previous job or working hours is also key.

Austria, Germany and Luxembourg all have interesting approaches that should be further developed in this vein. In Austria, there is educational leave, part-time educational leave and the scholarship for skilled workers, which need to be further developed into a standardised instrument to ensure people a living during continuing education and training phases and which also supports multi-year education and training courses.

In addition to financial support to compensate for loss of earnings, the Upgrading Training Assistance Act (Aufstiegsfortbildungsförderungsgesetz) in Germany also provides grants to cover continuing education and training costs. This needs to be further developed into a general continuing education and training assistance act which not only promotes career advancement but also switching to a different occupation, and finally enables unskilled workers to obtain their first professional qualification. The option of going on temporary part-time work is an important step towards a right to an exemption from work.

In Luxembourg, the law on individual educational leave guarantees a wage replacement payment and exemption from work for one-third of the duration of training. To provide better access to expensive education and training courses spanning multiple years, the amount of leave should be increased, and financial support possibilities should be created.

Proactive CET for employees

Changing professional demands and requirements are nothing new. In the past occupations have disappeared and completely new ones have emerged elsewhere, whilst others have been adapted to align with these changes. Many experts assume that this process will accelerate as a result of digitalisation and the structural transformation. This means that a growing number of employees will be confronted more frequently with situations where they have to change careers. To ensure that switching careers and sectors does not cause major disruption to people’s professional lives and phases of unemployment for the individual in question, there needs to be a greater focus on a preventive CET policy with the aim of preparing employees to switch lanes in a forward-looking and targeted way. Sector or occupation-specific models such as Austria’s labour foundations, which combine elements of collective labour law with public employment promotion schemes and focus on counselling and continuing education and training, provide interesting input for meeting this challenge.

Future-oriented, company-based CET

The continuing education and training activities of companies are often designed to realign employees’ skills with technical or organisational changes. From the point of view of the companies, they are a means of meeting specific in-house skills needs, increasing productivity and employee retention. But if the predictions that job profiles and requirements are set to change more quickly in the future prove true and in turn that the half-life of acquired knowledge and skills will be considerably shortened, preventive CET will also play an important role at companies as part of forward-looking HR policy. This will require the business community to step up and invest more in company-based CET in the future. But even now, there are already major disparities in company-based CET. For example, smaller businesses offer their employees continuing education and training less frequently than larger ones; and which employees they offer it to depends on their professional status at the company. This makes it all the more important to ensure that works and staff councils are involved. They play an important role when it comes to early warning, support, negotiations and mediation. Collective and company agreements are important instruments in ensuring that company-based CET is decided and designed democratically in tandem with the workforce in a way that reflects the interests of employees. The extent to which inter-company fund models can ensure more equal participation of employees in continuing education and training should also be examined.

Employment promotion

The objective of employment promotion is to organise a balance between labour supply and demand in the market, to reduce imbalances in regional, sectoral and skills-specific submarkets, to improve the skills match and finally, to increase workers’ chances of permanently re-entering the labour market and improve their position in the labour market. This makes it predestined for shoring up phases of structural change with targeted skills development.

But for this to happen, continuing vocational training needs to be reinstated at the heart of funding policy. Employment promotion focuses its funding mainly on workers who have already lost their jobs. In the future, the aim is for job seekers to not only have the costs of continuing education and training measures refinanced, but also for them to be paid a continuing education and training allowance to compensate for loss of earnings which is higher than the unemployment benefit during the training measure. Here too, social disadvantages must be compensated for by providing specific support to groups facing special difficulties on the labour market.

The Saarland Chamber of Labour and the Bremen Chamber of Employees believe that the continu­ing education and training approaches cited in the position paper of the European Chambers of Employees provide a foundation for further developing continuing education and training at European level and in turn, learning from each other.

The Saarland Chamber of Labour and the Bremen Chamber of Employees welcome the National Skills Strategy (Nationale Weiterbildungsstrategie) adopted last year in the Federal Republic of Germany, as it incorporates demands formulated by the European Chambers of Employees in their position paper. For example, the Skills Strategy sets forth improvements in employment promotion – as called for by the Chambers. These improvements include official reviews that explore options such as giving workers the right to catch up on professional qualifications or state-subsidised (part-time) training and education periods, but also the improvement of continuing education and training promotion for job seekers and the further development of short-time work in conjunction with skills development. The Work of Tomorrow Act (Arbeit-von-morgen-Gesetz) prepared by the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs builds on the Skills Development Opportunities Act (Qualifizierungschancengesetz). This makes it possible to combine short-time work to a greater extent with skills development. In addition there is a second funding line to the Skills Development Opportunity Act, thus enabling higher grants for skills development and wages from the Federal Employment Agency.

The Saarland Chamber of Labour and the Bremen Chamber of Employees continue to see a need to further develop the support and promotion of employees’ own personal continuing education and training ambitions independently from those of their company, as well as instruments for employee transfers with a right to continuing education and training in order to be able to shape the transformation of sectors and professions strategically and preventively.

Footnotes

1.
Saarland Chamber of Labour; Austrian Chambers of Workers and Employees; Bremen Chamber of Employees; Luxembourg Chambre des salariés (2020). Gut ausbilden, Weiterbildung stärken, die Zukunft gestalten: Für ein Recht auf berufliche Weiterbildung. Viewed on February 2, 2020, on https://www.csl.lu/bibliotheque/publications/8fba842d85.pdf
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