Are Adult Learning Systems Future-Ready?

By Alessia Forti

Adult learning systems are under pressure. Automation is expected to change skills needs within existing jobs, while making certain jobs disappear altogether. New technologies and changes in work organisation are creating new jobs with very different skill needs from the ones they are replacing. In advanced economies, globalisation is raising the demand for the high-level skills that can help countries remain competitive by moving up global value chains. Concurrently, population ageing is increasing the need for individuals to maintain and update their skills over longer working lives while also increasing the demand for certain goods, services and qualified labour (notably health care professionals and elderly care personnel). Beyond these mega-trends, low current basic skill levels among adults are putting additional pressures on adult learning systems: on average across the OECD, 26% of adults are able to complete only very basic reading and/or mathematical tasks and 37% have no or very limited digital problem solving skills.

To cope with these changes in the context of an economy that is increasingly knowledge-based, many more adults will need to participate in relevant training opportunities.

With the support of the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, the OECD has developed the Priorities for Adult Learning (PAL) dashboard and the report Getting Skills Right: Future-Ready Adult Learning Systems, which assess how ready adult learning systems are to address these challenges. Each country’s system is assessed along seven dimensions: i) urgency, ii) coverage, iii) inclusiveness, iv) flexibility and guidance, v) alignment with skill needs, vi) perceived training impact, and vii) financing.

As highlighted in the PAL dashboard, only around 40% of adults in OECD countries participate in training in a given year. What is more, disadvantaged adults, who arguably are those in most need of training, are the least likely to participate. The proportion of adults with low skills who participate in training is over 20 percentage points lower than for those with medium/higher skills.

But for training to have the desired impact on skills development, it also needs to be of good quality. Today, too many adults are not fully satisfied with the training they undertake – suggesting that training quality needs to be improved. Only half of training participants across the OECD found their training very useful for their job, with levels being as low as 24% in Japan and 31% in Korea.

Dissatisfaction with training may also reflect a misalignment with skill needs in the labour market. The results of the 2015 European Continuing Vocational Training Survey suggest that there is often weak alignment between firms’ identified skill needs and the training activities actually offered. Moreover, much training today is concentrated on compulsory training, such as health and safety, rather than on training that develops skills in need. Indeed, compulsory training absorbs 21% of training hours on average across the OECD, reaching over 30% in the Czech Republic and Italy.

Finally, adult learning systems need adequate funding to function well – with contributions by the government, individuals, and employers in line with the benefits generated. Building effective governance mechanisms is also key to ensure that ministries, regions, social partners, training providers, and other stakeholders work together well to deliver effective adult learning policies.

To increase the future readiness of each country’s adult learning system the OECD report Getting Skills Right: Future-Ready Adult Learning Systems identifies the following key policy directions:

  • Improve the coverage and inclusiveness of adult learning by helping adults make informed choices, tackling barriers to participation and encouraging employers to offer training;
  • Align the training content more strongly with the skill needs of the labour market by collecting and making use of skill assessment and anticipation information;
  • Improve the quality and impact of training provision by assessing the quality of providers, making quality information publicly accessible and encouraging the use of work organisation practices which raise returns to training;
  • Put in place adequate and sustainable financing, including through public funding and incentives for employers and individuals to contribute; and
  • Strengthen governance mechanisms to improve vertical and horizontal coordination between different actors involved in the adult learning system.

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