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Opinion and Comment

Two German Social Partners Share Their Views on the Implementation of the National Skills Strategy

Text: Sabrina Klaus-Schelletter, German Trade Union Confederation (DGB), Irene Seling and Jupp Zenzen, Confederation of German Employers’ Associations (BDA)

The German National Skills Strategy (Nationale Weiterbildungsstrategie) was elaborated by a broad alliance of social partners and German federal states (Länder) and presented in summer 2019. Sabrina Klaus-Schelletter (German Trade Union Confederation) and Dr Irene Seling and Dr Jupp Zenzen (both Confederation of German Employers’ Associations) were actively involved in this process.

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Sabrina Klaus-Schelletter (DGB): Successful trans­formation requires the right to continuing education and training

In light of ongoing structural changes, the importance of continuing education and training in ensuring employability for all groups of workers is undisputed. It is amazing that in spite of this, almost half of all companies in Germany have no strategy for coping with transformation or an insufficient one, according to the results of a survey by IG Metall (Transformationsatlas 2019). Likewise, half of the companies surveyed do not conduct long-term, systematic personnel planning or identify training needs. In other industries the situation is usually even worse. Another challenge is to reach those employees who would particularly benefit from continuing education and training, but who have so far hardly participated. These include in particular low-skilled workers, but also employees with a high proportion of routine activities.

When we asked what conclusions should be drawn from the developments on the labour market for companies, the expectations of the partners regarding the National Skills Strategy diverged to a great degree. The socio-political ideas of the respective partners are very different. At the heart of the debate was the dispute about the extent to which employees’ rights and works council participation at company level should be bolstered in the area of continuing education and training. In other words, preserving the status quo and tax gifts to companies on the one hand and the right to continuing education and training and strategic human resource planning on the other hand.

We need a new culture of continuing education and training

The central goal of the trade unions concerning transformation is to make possible or maintain decent work and personal development opportunities for all. We believe that the primary responsibility for the continuing education and training of employees lies with employers. They must maintain the skills they need their workforce and management to have. The individualisation and collectivisation of the burden of continuing education and training must be avoided. It is therefore essential to increase the role of the partners in companies and their cooperation. However, in times of strong disruption, preventative approaches to avoid unemployment are also needed beyond the workplace. To this end, labour market policies must be enhanced and there must be a sounder basis for indi­vidual opportunities and wishes for continuing vocational training, but also better social security.

In addition to various approaches to strategic personnel planning with improved rights of participation for works and staff councils, the strategically relevant commitments of the trade unions include in particular

  • further development of short-time allowances in conjunction with training
  • improvements to employment promotion, such as the right to subsequent acquisition of vocational qualifications
  • review of state-subsidised training (part-time) periods for employees
  • improvements to the Upgrading Training Assistance Act (Aufstiegsfortbildungsförderungsgesetz)
  • project funding to train trade union representatives and members of works councils to be continuing education and training mentors with the aim of establishing low-threshold training guidance in companies for the long term
  • continuation of the ESF social partners guideline to try out innovative company approaches in interaction with collective bargaining
  • more support for personnel in the continuing education and training sector.

It is important for the Federal Government to provide legal and financial security in the implementation process now to address the challenges in the field of labour market policy and empower individuals to make their own decisions on the course of their education and employment.

Indicators of success

It is now important for work to continue on swiftly implementing the joint commitments. There is still a lot to be done to implement a real strategy – both in companies and at legislative level. The real measure of success will be whether it is possible to master the challenges step by step in a way that demonstrates solidarity so that a successful transformation of the labour market with decent work for all employees is achieved. For trade unions, one thing is clear: successful transformation is only possible if there are legal entitlements to continuing education and training and strategic human resources planning with an even stronger role for works councils and staff councils. We also need stable security mechanisms in the event of unemployment, enabling upward mobility. We will continue to work on this, also in contexts other than the National Skills Strategy.

Ideas for Germany’s EU Council Presidency

In the strategy paper there are good ideas for the new funding period of the European Social Fund, for example the social partners guideline. These ideas could also be transferred to other member states. The core of the National Skills Strategy is the expansion and improvement of labour market policy instruments to promote skills acquisition. In her Agenda for Europe, Ursula von der Leyen spoke of European unemployment reinsurance. That could function as an automatic stabiliser in country-specific economic downturns and strengthen national unemployment insurance systems in times of crisis. However, refinancing of the systems during economic downturns must also be accompanied by the introduction of Euro­pean minimum social standards in unemployment insurance. The National Skills Strategy can provide a crucial boost in this respect, with the right to subsequent vocational qualifications and other preventative elements. The same applies to the debate on a European framework directive on minimum standards for basic incomes, in which the right to a minimum of material security must be combined with a legal right to continuing education and training. Finally, the transformation process we are facing also requires maintaining and improving the living and working conditions of each individual and making progress in the convergence of the member states.

„The transformation process we are facing also requires maintaining and improving the living and working conditions of each individual and making progress in the convergence of the member states.“

Dr Irene Seling and Dr Jupp Zenzen (BDA): Ten objectives – almost 80 commitments

The seven-month process of negotiating the National Skills Strategy resulted in a 22-page document, 10 objectives for action and almost 80 intensively discussed commitments – which were presented to the public in June 2019. This marked the starting point for the implementation phase that is scheduled for completion early in 2021. What expectations do employers have of the implementation process that is now being launched?

Problem-solving approach instead of ideology

One thing should be clear from the outset: the partners in the National Skills Strategy should understand that the strategy paper is not a document to be worked through like a government coalition agreement. Slavishly following the letter of the strategy and undertaking only what it specifies will not bring the desired results. It will be essential to initiate expedient measures that benefit both employees and businesses and meet their needs for continuing education and training (CET). The motto has to be: “Less ideology and more focus on generating solutions”.

The state should not regulate the continuing education and training market

The fundamental principle of the policy on company-based CET should be to strengthen individual accountability and not to add burdens through bureaucracy or overregulation, because the companies are proactive stakeholders in this regard. It is the companies that invest more than € 33 billion in continuing education and training every year – which is double the budget of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research! Likewise, individuals act on their own responsibility when choosing a path of vocational education. The companies and employees themselves are best placed to assess which qualifications will be required in the future. The diverse range of individual educational goals and needs is mirrored by the various forms of continuing education and training provided by companies. Starting from education-policy or social-policy motives for building up an excessively school-like system of certificates, data-bases, government portals, frames of reference, framework curricula and recognition bodies – which then hamper the innovative drive of the education service providers – will jeopardise the plural CET market and the competitiveness of businesses. We cannot afford to take such risks just when the economy is cooling off.

Conditions for a general entitlement to a second chance for vocational qualification

It is right to assist low-skilled people in acquiring a qualification. But the Strategy’s partners acted correctly in not planning an unconditional entitlement to a qualification, and instead have linked it to two conditions: acquiring the qualification must be realistic for the individual, and there must be a need for it on the labour market. Ideally, the short-term unemployed for whom it will be relatively easy to find work should be placed in jobs whilst receiving training alongside their employment with a view to obtaining a qualification. For low-skilled people already in employment, priority should be given to obtaining a partial qualification alongside employment, which has proven valuable as a CET instrument for helping the semi-skilled and unskilled to become skilled workers. In the case of the long-term unemployed, often other barriers which block the path to successfully obtaining a qualification have to be removed first. This also has to be taken into consideration. A general legal entitlement without any restrictions would be contrary to the basic principle that company-based CET must always take account of both parties: the interests and aptitudes of the employees and business requirements.

Facilitate continuing education and training promotion by the Federal Employment Agency

Irrespective of which other new legal regulations – if any – will apply to the promotion of continuing education and training, it will be crucial to facilitate its implementation. This means, first, eliminating unnecessary administrative obstacles to funding for larger, homogeneous groups (e.g. when applying for funding, accounting procedures). Second, the authorisation procedure for continuing education and training measures must be simplified and accelerated so that employees can be offered tailored measures. This includes aspects such as greater flexibility concerning the permissible cost framework and the sizes of groups.

„Partial qualification represents an efficient instrument for quickly acquiring and retaining skilled workers. “


Continuing education and training enables employees to maintain and expand their qualifications and skills in the changing world of work. Photo: Fauxels / Pexels

Promoting literacy and building up basic skills

The number of people either with severely limited basic skills or without such skills did indeed fall from 7.5 million to 6.2 million between 2011 and 2018, but it is still far too high. In terms both of employment policy and education policy, it makes sense to prioritise this area within the field of continuing education and training. It is a fundamental duty of the state to ensure that its citizens acquire a basic education. The relevant measures and projects must therefore be financed from tax revenue and not through contributions.

Partial qualifications: Targeted training for the low-skilled whilst in employment

Partial qualification represents an efficient instrument for quickly acquiring and retaining skilled workers. Flexible, low-threshold modular learning provides unskilled and low-skilled employees with selected expertise for occupations that require formal training. It is therefore both right and important that this should be prioritised in the implementation of the National Skills Strategy. The educational organisations of businesses, the employers, have been running the large-scale training initiative “Eine TQ besser!,” which successfully trains semi-skilled and unskilled workers, since 2013. At present, however, there is a large number of training providers with varying partial qualification strategies and skills assessment methods. Furthermore, there is no standardisation of the conditions for obtaining authorisation to take part in final examinations without prior enrolment in a regular vocational training course. At the same time, a huge demand exists for trained employees and for tailored CET. Both the employers and the participants in partial qualification schemes will benefit from a standardised modular system that enables the broad spectrum of partial qualifications on offer to be compared and makes them transparent and accessible to all those involved.

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