The new Skills Agenda for Europe

Dana Bachmann and Paul Holdsworth
European Commission, Directorate-General for
Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion



Abstract – The European Commission has published major proposals to tackle a number of challenges faced by the EU in the field of skills and human capital. These aim to improve the quality and relevance of skills formation, make skills and qualifications more visible and comparable, and improve skills intelligence and information for better career choices. 

The European Commission, in June 2016, published a major package of proposals aiming to encourage the 28 Member States of the European Union (EU) and a wide range of stakeholders to work together to increase their efforts to “strengthen human capital, employability and competitiveness”: the new Skills Agenda for Europe1.

This new Skills Agenda for Europe sets out to address a number of important challenges and opportunities:

  • The digital transformation of the economy is re-shaping the way people work and do business; digital skills are needed for all jobs, from the simplest to the most complex. They are also needed for everyday life, and a lack of digital skills may lead to social exclusion
  • The EU workforce is ageing and shrinking, leading in some cases to skills shortages; yet labour markets do not draw on the skills and talents of all; for example, women’s rate of employment remains below that of men.
  • The quality and relevance of the education and training available in Member States vary widely, which contributes to increasing disparities in countries’ economic and social performance.
  • The skills that people acquire outside formal education – online, at work, through professional courses, social activities or volunteering can often go unrecognised.

Furthermore, there are significant skills gaps and skills mismatches: many people work in jobs that do not match their talents, although many employers say they have difficulty finding people with the skills they need to grow and innovate. These skills mismatches hinder productivity and growth.

Most importantly, the Commission also draws attention to the high proportion of European adults who lack adequate reading, writing, numeracy and digital skills, putting them at risk of unemployment, poverty and social exclusion. Around 70 million adults – a quarter of the adult population – are affected. The new Skills Agenda highlights the role of skills as a pathway to employability and prosperity. With the right skills, people are equipped for good-quality jobs and can fulfil their potential as confident, active citizens. In a fast-changing global economy, skills will to a great extent determine competitiveness and the capacity to drive innovation. They are a pull factor for investment and a catalyst in the virtuous circle of job creation and growth. They are key to social cohesion. For all these reasons, the Commission believes that more needs to be done to encourage people to acquire and develop skills throughout their lives. This will require significant changes to policy, reforms of education and training systems and smart investments in human capital.

The new Skills Agenda for Europe is structured around three priority areas, which are quite self-explanatory. We need more and better skills (“Improve the quality and relevance of skills formation”). We need to put the skills we develop to good use (“Make skills more visible and comparable”). We need to better understand what skills will be demanded to help people choose what skills to develop (“Improve skills intelligence and information for better career choices”).

The following sections outline the main challenges identified by the Commission, and its proposals for tackling them.

Improving the quality and relevance of skills formation

Acquiring skills is a lifelong process, and starts when people are very young. More and more, evidence shows that policies to increase attainment alone are not sufficient: the quality and the relevance of what people learn are now centrestage. Many young people leave education and training without being sufficiently prepared to enter the labour market, to start their own business or cope with dynamic changes in society and economy.

The Commission is proposing a set of actions to improve skills formation across all life stages, with actions ranging from strengthening basic skills for adults to mainstreaming digital skills and making VET a first choice.

Strengthening the foundation: basic skills

To support more and better skills, the first step is an appropriate level of basic skills – literacy, numeracy, digital skills – for everybody. It is therefore not surprising that one of the actions proposed by the Commission focuses on this: the proposal for a Skills Guarantee aims to provide low qualified adults access to flexible tailored upskilling pathways to improve these skills or progress towards an upper secondary qualification.

Commissioner Marianne Thyssen (far left and picture on next page) is responsible for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility in the European Union. © European Commission

Europe faces a basic skills challenge. More than 65 million people in the EU have not achieved a qualification corresponding to upper secondary level. This rate varies significantly across EU countries, reaching 50% or more in some. Around a quarter of the European adult population struggles with reading and writing, and has poor numeracy and digital skills. Numeracy, literacy and basic digital skills are essential to access good jobs and participate fully in society. These are also the building blocks for further learning and career development. This was recently brought home to Commissioner Marianne Thyssen (who is responsible, amongst other things, for skills) when she and Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands met with Sam Riley [photo], a man who has been able to turn his life around because he received support with his literacy skills. The Commissioner keeps his handwritten letter in her office as a reminder of the importance of helping people to improve their basic skills [photo].

Yet, across the EU, the adults mostly in need of engaging in learning participate very little in lifelong learning. On average, only 10.7% of adult Europeans participated in any education and training in 2014, again with significant variation between countries and against an EU target of 15% set to be reached by 2020. But an analysis of the participation of low-qualified adults in education and training shows even lower participation rates, varying from below 1% in some countries to over 20% in others. On average in the EU only 4.3% of low-qualified adults – that is, the group most in need of learning – participate in education and training.

“Europe faces a basic skills challenge. More than 65 million people in the EU have not achieved a qualification corresponding to upper secondary level."

To improve the employment opportunities and overall life chances of low-skilled adults in Europe, the Commission has made a proposal to help low-skilled adults – both in-work and out of work – to improve their literacy, numeracy and digital skills and, where possible, to develop a wider set of skills leading to an upper secondary education qualification or equivalent. The proposal is that Member States should introduce a Skills Guarantee, which would involve offering to low qualified adults: (a) a skills assessment, enabling them to identify their existing skills and their upskilling needs; (b) a package of education or training tailored to the specific learning needs of each individual, and (c) opportunities to have their skills validated and recognised. The proposal was developed based on existing good practices, in EU Member States and beyond, and calls for establishing strong coordination and cooperation mechanisms to make the Skills Guarantee a reality.

These new upskilling pathways would take into account the different skills levels and training needs within the very wide group of low-qualified individuals. They would lead to training in literacy, numeracy or digital skills for those who need them. For those who are ready to engage in further learning, the pathways could lead further: to a qualification at EQF level4 or equivalent certifying the acquisition of a broader set of key competences. The overall aim of the Guarantee is to help people with the weakest skills and educational background to develop the skills they need to access and progress in quality work and actively take part in society, as well as to boost employability, competitiveness and support fair and balanced growth, reaping the full potential of digital and technological advancements. By addressing the needs of this wide target group, the proposed Skills Guarantee would support policies aimed at overcoming social inequalities faced by people with low skills and give them a fair chance to improve their lives and avoid poverty and social exclusion.

© European Commission

Making vocational education and training (VET) a first choice

Forecasts in several Member States indicate that there will be a shortage of people with vocational qualifications in the future. VET is valued for fostering job-specific and transversal skills, facilitating the transition into employment and maintaining and updating the skills of the workforce according to sectoral, regional and local needs. However, for many young people and their parents initial VET remains a second choice. VET needs to increase its attractiveness, for example through quality provision and flexible organisation, allowing progression to higher vocational or academic learning, and closer links with the world of work. Business and social partners should be involved in designing and delivering VET, which should include a strong work-based dimension, whenever possible coupled with an international experience. The Commission will promote opportunities for learners to undertake a work-based learning experience as part of their studies, support partnerships between learning providers, research and business to foster joint work on higher vocational programmes, and launch a first European Vocational Skills Week in 2016 to showcase excellence in VET.

Building resilience: key competences and higher, more complex skills

Formal education and training should equip everyone with a broad range of skills which opens doors to personal fulfilment and development, social inclusion, active citizenship and employment. These include literacy, numeracy, science and foreign languages, as well as transversal skills and key competences such as digital competences, entrepreneurship, critical thinking, problem solving or learning to learn, and financial literacy. Early acquisition of these skills is the foundation for the development of higher, more complex skills which are needed to drive creativity and innovation. These skills need to be strengthened throughout life, and allow people to thrive in fast-evolving workplaces and society, and to cope with complexity and uncertainty. While some of these competences already have an established place in educational systems, this is not typically the case for key competences such as entrepreneurship and citizenship, or transversal skills. Where some Member States have taken steps to incorporate them in curricula, this has not always been done consistently. To promote a shared understanding of two of these competences, the Commission has developed reference frameworks for digital competences (now taken up in 13 Member States) and entrepreneurship.

Under the new Skills Agenda, to help more people acquire a core set of skills, the Commission intends to launch a revision of the European Framework of Key Competences for Lifelong Learning2. The goal is to develop a shared understanding of key competences and to further foster their introduction in education and training curricula. The revision will also provide support for better developing and assessing these skills. Special attention will be paid to promoting entrepreneurial and innovation-oriented mind-sets, including by encouraging practical entrepreneurial experiences.

Getting connected: focus on digital skills

The rapid digital transformation of the economy means that almost all jobs now require some level of digital skills, as does participation in society at large. The collaborative economy is changing business models, opening up opportunities and new routes into work, demanding different skill sets, and bringing challenges such as accessing upskilling opportunities. Robotisation and artificial intelligence are replacing routine jobs, not only on the factory floor, but in the office. Access to services, including e-services, is changing and requires that users, providers and public administrations have sufficient digital skills. E-health, for instance, is transforming the way people access and receive healthcare. The demand for digital technology professionals has grown by 4% annually in the last ten years. Yet the number of unfilled vacancies for ICT professionals is expected to reach 756,000 by 2020. Furthermore, almost half the EU population lacks basic digital skills; with around 20% of people having none at all. Member States, business and individuals need to rise to the challenge and invest more in digital skills formation (including coding/computer science) across the whole spectrum of education and training.

The Commission is launching the Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition to develop a large digital talent pool and ensure that individuals and the labour force in Europe are equipped with adequate digital skills.

Making skills and qualifications more visible and comparable

Qualifications signal to employers what people know and are able to do but rarely capture skills acquired outside formal learning institutions, which therefore risk being undervalued. Identifying and validating these skills is particularly important for people with lower qualifications, the unemployed or those at risk of unemployment, for people who need to change career path and for migrants. It helps people better showcase and use their experience and talent, identify further training needs and take up opportunities for re-qualification. Differences between education and training systems, however, make it difficult for employers to assess the knowledge and skills of people with a qualification from another country than their own.

Under the new Skills Agenda for Europe, the Commission proposes actions to improve the transparency and comparability of qualifications and to support the early profiling of migrants’ skills and qualifications.

Improving transparency and comparability of qualifications

The European Qualifications Framework3 for lifelong learning (EQF) was established to make it easier to understand and compare what people have actually learned (learning out comes) while gaining their qualification. It has encouraged actors from different national educational sectors to work together to design coherent national qualification frameworks based on learning outcomes. The Commission has put forward a proposal for revising the EQF in order to make it more effective in helping employers, workers and learners to understand national, international and third-country qualifications. The initiative should thus contribute to a better use of available skills and qualifications for the benefit of individuals, the labour market and the economy.

Early profiling of migrants’ skills and qualifications

Understanding the skills, qualifications and professional experiences of newly arrived migrants is a challenge for many countries. Identifying migrants’ skills early on can help deter mine the first steps needed to integrate them into their hostsociety and the labour market. This may involve referring them to appropriate training (including language training, business training or apprenticeships available through the European Alliance for Apprenticeships), or to employment services. The Commission proposes a number of measures to more rapidly integrate third country nationals, including a tool to assist receiving countries to identify and document the skills, qualifications and experience of newly-arrived Third Country Nationals and to support the training of staff in reception facilities as well as making available online language learning for newly arrived migrants.

“Understanding the skills, qualifications and professional experiences of newly arrived migrants is a challenge for many countries."

Improving skills intelligence and information for better career choices

The third priority area focuses on the skills data availability and its usage by policy makers, education and training providers, learners and employers.

Better information for better choices

Whether seeking jobs or deciding what and where to learn, people need to be able to access and make sense of available skills intelligence. People also need to (self-)assess their skills and present their qualifications effectively; and employers need more efficient and effective ways of identifying and recruiting people with the right skills.

The Commission will submit proposals to set up an intuitive and seamless online service platform providing webbased tools for documenting and sharing information on skills and qualifications and free self-assessment tools by building on the good results of the Europass4 Framework. It will also further improve data on skills needs and trend by web crawling and big data analysis for offering accurate and realtime information on skills for the use of individuals, employers and policy makers.

Boosting skills intelligence and cooperation in economic sectors

Current and future skills needs vary across different sectors of the economy. New sectors emerge or change radically. The supply of the right skills at the right time is important for competitiveness and innovation. A major challenge for industry is to better anticipate and manage these changes. To improve skills intelligence and tackle skills shortages in specific economic sectors, the Commission is launching a Blueprint for Sectoral Cooperation on Skills. It will help mobilise and coordinate key players, encourage private investment and promote more strategic use of relevant EU and national funding programmes. Sectoral skills partnerships, in industry and services, will be set up to identify skills needs and develop concrete solutions, such as joint development of higher VET opportunities and business-education-research partnerships and to promote the recognition of sectoral qualifications and certifications. Sectors targeted in a first stage include automotive, maritime technology, space, defence, textile and tourism.

Better understanding the performance of graduates

Universities and VET providers prepare young people for working life, so they need to understand labour market trends, know how easily their alumni find jobs, and adapt their programmes accordingly. Students need this information to make informed choices on what and where to study. Better information on the labour market outcomes for graduates is needed. Mechanisms for tracking tertiary graduates have been developed in a number of Member States and the Commission plans to support Member States in improving information on how graduates progress on the labour market.


The new Skills Agenda sets out a joint agenda for the EU, Member States and stakeholders. The goal is to reach a shared vision and commitment to work together on improving the quality and relevance of skills formation in order to keep step with the rapidly changing skills requirements of the labour market, equip everyone with a minimum set of basic skills and make qualifications easier to understand, helping workers and learners to move around more easily within the EU.

The European Commission has invited the European Parliament and the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions to endorse the Agenda and to support its implementation, in close cooperation with all relevant stakeholders.

About the authors

Dana Bachmann is Head of the Vocational Education and Training, Apprenticeships and Adult Education Unit in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion.

Paul Holdsworth is Team Leader – Skills for Adults in the Vocational Education and Training, Apprenticeships and Adult Education Unit in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion.


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