Report

Individual Learning Accounts – A well-designed programme can help countries achieve better training outcomes OECD says

A rise in non-standard work in many countries and an increased fragmentation of worker careers have created new challenges for training policies at a time when structural transformation is raising the need for both re- and up-skilling. Policy makers are searching for new solutions to the challenges set by the future of work and, in the area of training, individual learning accounts have received renewed attention. In particular, the French Compte Personnel de Formation is frequently cited as an interesting new approach which could boost training participation in a new world of work.

The purpose of this report is to develop some guidance for policy makers in setting up such a scheme by reviewing the experience with existing and past programmes through a series of case studies and a literature review. To date, only one real individual learning account has been implemented – the Compte Personnel de Formation in France. The report therefore takes a wider approach by looking at “individual learning schemes”, which include:

I. Individual Learning Accounts. These are virtual, individual accounts in which training rights are accumulated over time. They are virtual in the sense that resources are only mobilised if training is actually undertaken. The only real example of an Individual Learning Account is the French Compte Personnel de Formation.

II. Individual Savings Accounts. These are real, physical accounts in which individuals accumulate resources over time for the purpose of training. Unused resources remain the property of the individual and may, depending on the scheme, be used for other purposes (e.g. retirement). These schemes are extremely rare.

III. Vouchers. These provide individuals with direct subsidies to be used for training purposes, often with co-financing from the individual; they do not allow for any accumulation of rights or resources over time. This is the form of individual learning scheme most frequently implemented.

Individual learning schemes present attractive features. They were originally introduced with the objective of boosting individual choice and responsibility with regards to training and to increase competition among training providers and thus the quality and relevance of training provision. More recently, their ability to make training rights “portable” from one job or employment status to another – i.e. to link training rights to individuals rather than to a specific job or employer – attracted renewed policy interest in a world of work where careers are becoming increasingly fragmented.

But individual learning accounts are unlikely to be a panacea to the challenges set by the new world of work. Rather, like any other training measure, they become a Pandora’s box once one starts looking at the details. This is not to say that they cannot be helpful in tackling some challenges, however there needs to be a clear understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of such schemes, and there are important design issues to consider. Policy makers interested in setting up an individual learning account need to consider a number of important questions and trade-offs. While in and of itself an individual learning account will not solve all problems, a well-designed programme can help countries achieve better training outcomes. Some of the key lessons emerging from this review for the design of individual learning accounts (but also for individual learning schemes more widely) are:

Targeting individual learning schemes helps to reduce deadweight loss and the participation bias against the low-skilled. Individual learning schemes have a poor track record as far as participation of the low-skilled is concerned. Targeting can help overcome this challenge, however it may also increase administrative burdens (and therefore harm participation). One disadvantage of restricting schemes to certain groups is that it reduces the portability of rights. A different way of targeting, which overcomes this problem, is to allow access to everyone but to differentiate the amount of support by group.

Funding should be substantial if the scheme is expected to make a significant difference to training outcomes. Most existing schemes provide relatively small amounts of support which means that, in practice, participants can only undertake short-duration training programmes which are unlikely to lead to significant up- or re-skilling. In addition, many programmes have co-financing requirements which may put off low-skilled and low-income individuals. One of the largest costs of undertaking training is often the earnings foregone while training. Allowing individuals to combine the support from individual learning schemes with other types of training support, such as paid training/educational leave, is therefore a good idea. Encouraging complementarities with employer-provided training can also be a good way of fostering a culture of learning.

Individual learning schemes should be kept simple in order to maximise participation. Schemes that are complex to navigate will harm participation, particularly among the low-skilled and under-represented groups. Easy-to-use websites can help individuals find information and make decisions although, for the least-skilled, face-to-face assistance remains important. Complex and fragmented governance schemes, with responsibilities spread across too many actors, can also hamper the effectiveness of individual learning schemes as stakeholders struggle to navigate the system, especially the least-skilled.
Individual learning schemes need to be accompanied by other measures to boost participation among under-represented groups. The training barriers faced by under-represented groups often go beyond a simple lack of finance. Schemes need to be simple to navigate and individuals (the low-skilled in particular) will also need effective face-to-face information, advice and guidance to enable them to convert their training rights into valuable training outcomes, tools that are sorely lacking in practice in most cases.

Guaranteeing training quality becomes even more important in the case of individual learning schemes. Individuals face a strong asymmetry of information vis-à-vis suppliers with regards to training quality, and they have little or no capacity to negotiate prices (or other training aspects) with the provider. The creation of individual learning schemes has frequently resulted in accelerating the implementation of quality assurance frameworks. The main instrument used is the certification of training providers. Restrictions on the type of training that can be acquired with individual learning accounts can also help improve their effectiveness in terms of labour market outcomes of individuals.

The way individual learnings schemes are financed has important implications for redistribution and the predictability of funding. The higher the individual saving or co-financing requirements are, the less redistributive individual learning schemes will be. In terms of the source of public funding, tax-financed schemes are more redistributive (to the extent that the tax system is), but it can make the scheme very sensitive to budgetary constraints and therefore funding becomes less predictable over time. Financing the scheme through a training levy has the advantage that funding will be earmarked, and it allows some mutualisation at the same time.

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at Individual Learning Accounts – Panacea or Pandora’s Box? – en – OECD

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