The role of the social partners in fostering responsive and resilient skills systems

By Glenda Quintini

Trends in technology, demography and globalisation affect the way work is organised and carried out, spurring rapid changes in the skills required at work. These changes underscore the importance of adult learning to help individuals maintain and upgrade their skills throughout their working lives.

The recently published 2020 Global deal1 flagship report, ‘Social Dialogue, Skills and Covid-19’, is dedicated to the role of social dialogue and the active participation of the social partners (i.e. the representatives of employers and workers) in fostering adult learning systems that are future ready. It documents how dialogue and interaction between trade unions and employers is instrumental in increasing adult learning coverage, fostering the participation of under-represented groups, promoting flexibility and guidance, aligning training with labour market needs, ensuring training quality, and financing training.

The social partners have a crucial role to play in each of these key dimensions as shown in Figure 1, from the development of adult-learning policy to its implementation. Employers, for example, have a strong interest in ensuring that adult learning is aligned with their needs and will work towards this goal when involved, while recognising the value more generally of training for keeping their employees engaged and motivated. Trade unions, in turn, represent workers’ interests and strive for an adult-learning system that gives equitable access to learning opportunities and equips individuals with skills that are beneficial for them, including transferable skills (OECD, 2019). Throughout workers’ careers, the social partners work alongside other actors such as different levels of government, training providers, public employment services and civil society organisations.

Social partner involvement in the adult-learning system varies considerably across countries. In some countries, the social partners are heavily involved in the definition and management of the training system. An example of strong social partner involvement is Iceland, where the social partners jointly define and manage the training system through the Education and Training Centre (Fræðslumiðstöð atvinnulífsins). The Centre identifies training needs, develops training programmes and curricula, develops and monitors the validation of non-formal and informal learning, supervises career guidance, develops quality assurance measures, and collects data on the target group. It also administers the Education Fund (Fræðslusjóð), which is funded through a levy paid by employers.

Even in systems where the involvement of the social partners is not overarching, they play a crucial role in the dimensions listed above. The 2020 Global Deal flagship report discusses this extensively through a number of relevant examples, including:

  • Involvement of the social partners in the development of adult-learning strategies – In Norway, a wide range of stakeholders, including three employer associations, four trade union associations, jointly developed the Norwegian Strategy for Skills Policy 2017-2021. A Skills Policy Council composed of the strategy partners monitors the implementation of the strategy (Ministry of Education and Research, 2017[30]).
  • Outreach to under-represented groups – Unionlearn (United Kingdom) supports workers in acquiring skills and qualifications to improve their employability, with a particular focus on the low-skilled.
  • Negotiating training rights and the provision of guidance – In October 2017, the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions, the Confederation of Danish Employers and the Danish Government concluded a tripartite agreement on adult training for the period 2018-21. The agreement includes a wide variety of initiatives, such as the creation of funds for employees to undertake training on their own initiative, awareness-raising activities, courses to improve basic literacy and numeracy skills, skill recognition, and improved advice and guidance.
  • Conducting skills assessment and anticipation exercises – In Canada, human resources and skills-focused industry partnership organisations, including more than 20 sector councils (linking stakeholders from the business, labour and education communities, among others) examine current and projected skill needs. These organisations then help in the design and implementation of policies to assist firms and workers in adjusting to current and future skill needs.
  • The set-up of quality assurance systems – In Germany, certification of training programmes in the context of active labour market policies is conducted by certifying bodies (Zertifizierungsstelle). Trade unions and employer organisations are part of the agency’s advisory council, along with government representatives.
  • Financing of training – In France and Italy, the social partners manage training funds, obtained through a training levy imposed on employers, to finance workers’ training.

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the role of the social partners in strengthening the resilience of labour markets and skills systems (see this blog post). Social dialogue played a central role by shaping agreements on short time work whereby business refrained from firing workers, trade unions accepted reduced working hours and lower monthly wages, and governments stepped in financially to make up part of the difference in the initial wage. On several occasions, these arrangements included provisions to use the period of low activity to organise further training. In the Netherlands for example, the tripartite agreement of 27 August conditioned employer financial support on encouraging workers to participate in training. Concerned about the impact of the pandemic on apprenticeships, the social partners in Germany concluded an “Alliance for Apprenticeships” in May, including financial support for companies in return for a sufficient number of apprenticeship places. Social dialogue thus acted as a crisis circuit-breaker that prevented massive job destruction while at the same time preparing workers for the post- pandemic recovery by investing and upgrading their skills.  

The way forward

The 2020 Global Deal flagship report provides some directions for the effective involvement of the social partners in skills systems going forward:

  • Collaboration and joint development of adult-learning strategies with the social partners are preferable to relying on consultation only;
  • Collective agreements are valuable tools to regulate aspects of adult education and training policy, such as training rights and training leave;
  • Skill councils have proven to be a good mechanism to involve the social partners in the assessment and anticipation of skill needs and in the implementation of policies that use this information;
  • Trade unions are an important partner to reach out to and motivate low-skilled workers to participate in training.
  • Training funds managed by the social partners can be instrumental in increasing adult-learning participation.
  • The involvement of the social partners in the quality assurance of training is particularly important in systems where training provision is fragmented and difficult to monitor.

The Global Deal,1 a multi-stakeholder partnership to promote social dialogue and sound industrial relations to address the challenges in the global labour market, aims to contribute to this forward-looking agenda by continuing to show how social dialogue on skills creates “win-win-win” outcomes. A better skilled workforce benefits business, workers and society at large.


References

Global Deal (2020), The Global Deal for Decent Work and Inclusive Growth flagship report 2020: Social dialogue, skills and COVID-19.

OECD (2019), Getting Skills Right Making adult learning work in social partnership.

OECD (2019), Getting Skills Right: Future-Ready Adult Learning Systems, Getting Skills Right, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264311756-en.


1 The Global Deal partnership is made up of over 100 partners representing governments, businesses and employers’ organisations, trade unions, civil society organisations and international organisations such as the ILO and the OECD.


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