How can countries help develop adult skills after COVID-19?

By Stefano Scarpetta

The pandemic led to major disruptions to labour markets and societies. The 2021 OECD Skills Outlook: Learning for Life stresses the key role of lifelong learning in a fast-changing society. It provides new insights into promoting access and participation in adult learning, especially for disadvantaged populations. In order to plant the seeds for positive lifelong learning attitudes, countries must empower individuals and provide innovative and diversified learning opportunities.


For many people, the start of the pandemic and the change to remote working presented an opportunity for an organic reflection of their intrinsic values and career goals. Some turned to online learning platforms such as Coursera and LinkedIn to polish their language or Excel skills. Others turned to data science centered platforms, such as Udemy, to redirect their career trajectories towards programming and coding. But the pandemic also highlighted stark inequalities in access to learning and skill development: low-skilled and low-educated workers were more likely to be laid off due to the inability to transition to remote work. They did not only lose their jobs; they also lost opportunities for informal learning, which often occurs during spontaneous interactions at work, and on-the-job training. And while there is an abundance of online learning platforms offering skill development, barriers such as a lack of knowledge of their own skill needs and a lack of ICT infrastructure often make it very difficult for low-skilled and low-educated people to participate. 

The 2021 OECD Skills Outlook estimates the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns on the ability of individuals to train. It finds that, in a scenario of widespread closure of economic activities, non-formal learning hours (such as time spent in workshops and seminars at work) decreased by as much as 18% and informal learning hours (such as time spent interacting with colleagues and learning from their experience) by as much as 25% on average across OECD countries. The loss of learning was even larger for medium- and low-skilled workers, who are estimated to have lost twice as many informal learning opportunities as tertiary-educated adults. The United States experienced some of the largest disparities, with below tertiary-educated adults losing over 2 hours of informal learning per week compared to about a 45-minute loss for tertiary-educated adults. Thus, while COVID-19 has highlighted the increased demand for lifelong learning, it has also revealed stark inequalities in both incentives and opportunities for adult learning.

In general, a large percentage of adults are willing to train but often have barriers that prevent them from engaging in learning opportunities. The report highlights that across OECD countries, 14% of adults participate in adult learning, but would like to participate even more. Anadditional 10% report that they would like to participate in training but cannot do so because of obstacles such as financial and time constraints, lack of prerequisites, lack of interested in the opportunities available.

How can countries best support the learning priorities and incentives of different population groups?

The Skills Outlook 2021 shows clearly that countries need to develop innovative strategies for reaching the most disadvantaged populations and bolster their incentives to participate in adult learning. They must create an inclusive culture of learning by recognizing various objectives and barriers for different population groups.

Traditional-awareness raising campaigns have not proved very effective[1] to increase awareness of the available learning opportunities and of the advantages of up-skilling – especially for low-skilled and low-educated workers. But some countries have found innovative ways to target them. Belgium, for example, has supported novel platforms, such as Formtruck, a mobile training information centrewhich reaches out to low-qualified jobseekers in easily accessible public locations such as parks and public squares.[2]

For some young adults facing the transition from college to the workforce, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored fears of being unprepared in their chosen career paths. Counselling services that provide clear career expectations, including educational requirements and salary, as well as informal know-how of possible career paths can help students make the best choices and build confidence in their decision-making. The French programme “Une jeune une solution” is an example of providing targeted support to facilitate the transition of young people in the labour market.

While older adults are the most likely group to be disengaged from adult learning, there are examples of curricula that encourage re-engagement and help foster a renewed love for learning. Korea’s Joe Hope Centre, for example, supports re-employment and the development of basic Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) skills among vulnerable workers aged 40 and above to help them feel more in tune with the rapid pace of a digital society.

While the pandemic has been an incredible challenge for many learners, it has also provided an important moment for inner reflection and change, as well as opportunities for re-engagement with creative learning and human connection. Some non-governmental organisations have swelled with volunteers hoping to provide English lessons or mock interviews via Zoom to disadvantaged populations in their local communities. Such innovative programs that harness the power of technology in an equitable way and promote collaboration across sectors and actors will be key to ensure lifelong learning as a priority. Recovery plans represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest in effective lifelong learning for all. Many countries are indeed devoting significant resources specifically to adult learning. It is essential to invest these resources wisely to reduce, if not close, the gap in access to quality training for the low skilled


[1] European Commission (2015), “Adult Education and Training in Europe: Widening Access to Learning Opportunities Eurydice Report Education and Training”, http://dx.doi.org/10.2797/8002.

[2] OECD (2019), Getting Skills Right: Engaging low-skilled adults in learning, OECD, Paris, https://www.oecd.org/els/emp/engaging-low-skilled-adults-2019.pdf.


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