Upskilling and Reskilling in Europe – A potential of 128 million adults (46.1% of the adult population)

As 2020 approaches, and the EU is still far from attaining its benchmark of 15% adult participation in learning, our societies face multiple challenges: technological changes, including digitalisation and its consequences for the future of work; ageing societies; the need for the greening of the economy; and social inclusion. Europe must improve and maintain high-level skills and competences to remain competitive and innovative; skills are therefore essential, not only to access and progress in the labour market but also to achieve one’s full potential and play an active role in society.

The benefits of investing in the upskilling and reskilling of adults have long been acknowledged in the literature. Cedefop analysis demonstrates how adults with low cognitive skills and/or low education are a vulnerable segment of the population, characterised by lower earnings and employment rates, lower quality of health, wellbeing and life satisfaction, lower civic and social engagement, and higher probability of involvement in criminal activities. Empowering low-skilled adults by promoting their upskilling and/or reskilling is associated with large social and economic incentives. According to the estimates, upskilling the EU-28 adult population (upskilling scenario: a faster increase on skill levels in the EU-28 Member States compared to the current trend) would lead to an average yearly gain of EUR 200 billion in the 10-year period between 2015 and 2025. Lack of exhaustive data prevents determining a comprehensive figure for the cost of low skills. These estimates, while alarming, should be regarded as underestimating the real economic and social costs of low skills in Europe and call for immediate action.

However, the low-skilled adult population is heterogeneous and includes adults with different needs and characteristics. For policy-makers to design and implement tailored policies, there is a need to develop a comprehensive and robust evidence base in order to understand better the magnitude of the low-skilled adult population and which groups of adults are more at risk of being low-skilled.

To date, lack of exhaustive data has meant that analysis of ‘low-skilled’ status has been rather narrow and primarily conducted on the basis of either the level of educational attainment of the population or as people working in low-skilled jobs. However, low-skilled status is a multidimensional and dynamic phenomenon which goes beyond educational attainment. A comprehensive approach to understanding low skills should consider both the determinants and effects of low skills; in doing this, it should also include a wider typology of people with low skills, such as those with obsolete skills and mismatched workers.

The aim of the reference report is to understand better the magnitude of the low-skilled adult population in the EU-28 Members States, Iceland and Norway (hereafter EU-28+). It also seeks to identify which groups of adults are most at risk of being low-skilled according to a wider definition that goes beyond educational attainment to digital skills, cognitive skills (literacy and numeracy) and the effects of skill loss and obsolescence.
For the purpose of this research, adults (aged 25 to 64) have been investigated according to these skill domains:
(a) educational attainment;
(b) computer and digital skills;
(c) cognitive skills (numeracy and literacy);
(d) adults with medium or high education but working in elementary occupations as a proxy for skills obsolescence/skill loss.


Data show that EU-28+ countries present significant differences in the share of adults with low skills in all dimensions considered. In particular:
(a) according to Eurostat-LFS 2016 data, the share of adults with low levels of education (ISCED 0-2 and 3c short) varies from over 50% for Malta and Portugal to less than 10% in some eastern Europe countries (Czechia, Lithuania);
(b) in countries such as Bulgaria, Italy and Romania, one in four adults (25%) declared in 2015 they had never used the computer, while this share drops to less than 5% in Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom (CSIS-2015);
(c) significant differences among countries are also found in the use of the internet and digital skills. According to CSIS-2015 data, in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Poland and Romania, 60% or more of adults have insufficient digital skills; they either have not used the internet in the three months prior to the interview or, if they have used it, they have below basic digital skills in activities such as information, communication, content creation and problem-solving;
(d) among the countries investigated by the PIAAC survey (2012;2015), the share of adults with low cognitive skills (literacy and numeracy) is particularly high (over 36%) in Greece, Spain and Italy, while it is much lower (below 20%) in the Scandinavian countries, as well as in Czechia, Estonia, the Netherlands and Slovakia.
Overall, the incidence of low skills across the EU-28+ shows that Greece, Spain, France, Italy and Malta present higher than average shares of low-skilled adults in almost all the skills concepts investigated (for which data are available for the country). In contrast, the Netherlands, Austria and Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden) perform better than average in terms of low skills in all dimensions.


As there is no single European dataset encompassing information on all skill domains considered in this study, estimation of the magnitude of the adult population with potential for upskilling and reskilling has been carried out using a four- step residual approach. To reduce overlapping of relevant information, four sets of low-skilled adults have been estimated and summed up to arrive at a single value:

(a) adults with low education ;
(b) adults with medium-high education working in elementary occupations;
(c) adults with low digital skills (8), among those which have medium-high education and are not employed in a manual job;
(d) adults with low cognitive skills (low literacy and/ or low numeracy), among those which have medium-high education, who are not working in an elementary occupation and having already used computer.

According to these estimates, in the EU-28+, there are 128 million adults (46.1% of the adult population of this area) with potential for upskilling and reskilling, since they present either low education, low digital skills, low cognitive skills or are medium- to high-educated at risk of skill loss and obsolescence, because they work in elementary occupations.
These estimates depict an alarming picture and hint at a much larger pool of talent and untapped potential than the 60 million low-educated adults usually referred as low-skilled adults in the EU-28.
There are considerable differences among countries. Very high shares of adults with potential for upskilling and reskilling (around 70%) are observed in Malta and Portugal. Estimates are also quite alarming for Greece, Spain, Italy and Romania, all of which report values over 50%. Conversely, the lowest shares can be observed in Czechia and Finland (28% and 27% respectively) but also in Estonia, Norway, Slovakia and Sweden (between 31 and 33%).

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story @ Empowering adults through upskilling and reskilling pathways | Cedefop

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