opinion piece

Skills: the new currency to enable work transitions

Skills shortages have become a critical challenge for the entire economy, one that will likely worsen with the digital and green transitions. Sonja van Lieshout, Member of the Executive Committee of WEC-Europe, and Michael Freytag, Public Affairs Manager, explain how employers and unions in the agency work sector are joining forces to equip workers with sustainable skills.

Published on 2nd June 2023

Job vacancy rates in Europe and other parts of the world are still above pre-pandemic levels and peaked in 2022. Labour and skills shortages have become a critical challenge for the entire economy, affecting almost all sectors, with companies struggling to find the talents they need. The private employment services industry, which is all about ensuring the right match between demand and supply, is not immune. Agency workers, who tend to be young and have pretty diverse skills and qualifications portfolios, need skilling and training to make their career path sustainable.

This challenge becomes even more critical as economic analysis shows the changing skills patterns. In March 2022, LinkedIn published a Skills-First Blueprint for Better Job Outcomes, which shows how the skill sets for jobs have changed by around 25% since 2015. By 2027, this number is expected to double. The OECD forecasts indicate that more than 1 billion jobs, or almost one-third of all jobs worldwide, will likely be transformed by technology in the next decade. This disruption has already started, affecting all sectors, and the Covid-19 pandemic impacted it strongly.

The World Economic Forum estimates that governments worldwide will need to reskill more than 1 billion people by 2030. In addition to digital skills, specialised interpersonal skills will be in high demand in our knowledge-based, hybrid world of work. The good news is that only some of those required skills are entirely new. Many of the top skills in fast-growing and higher-paying roles are similar in nature to skills in other fields and just need to be ‘transferred’.

Against this background, the European Commission launching a European Year of Skills from May 2023 to May 2024 responds to an important economic and labour market challenge. The European Year of Skills will give a fresh impetus to lifelong learning initiatives, empowering people and companies to contribute to the green and digital transitions, supporting innovation and competitiveness.

Throughout the year, conferences, events and skills-related activities will be held across Europe. Also, the 2023 country-specific recommendations from the European Semester process rightly include a focus on skills, employability and inclusive labour markets, in line with the EU Employment Guidelines number 6 on enhancing labour supply and improving access to employment, skills and competencies. Investing in skills and employability is equally essential to reach progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goal number 4 on ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all, as well as Goal number 8 on promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

Sectoral social partners at the European and national levels are important in enabling and discussing training and skills policies in the agency work industry. In May 2023, the European sectoral social partners adopted a set of joint recommendations to strengthen non-formal and informal learning and the recognition of prior learning, underlining that the private employment services industry provides an important contribution to the re- and upskilling of workers in Europe. Work-based learning plays a vital role in this context, thanks to bipartite training funds (such as those set, for example, in Italy, France, Belgium, and The Netherlands), dual learning and career guidance and coaching.

Valuing the role played by bi-partite training funds established in the temporary agency work industry is important to offer training, learning opportunities, as well as counselling services and financial support to temporary agency workers. It should be acknowledged that bipartite training funds must be based on constructive social partnerships and collective labour agreements. These are strongly connected to the specific labour market context in those countries where the funds are set.

Sectoral social partners are also calling for engaging the sector of temporary agency work in the European Year of Skills initiatives to foster labour market matching, skills intelligence and training, and in the National Plans set up under the Recovery and Resilience Facility. Ensuring equal access to government schemes is essential in this context. Furthermore, WEC-Europe and UNI-Europa call for recognising that an enabling environment for labour market transitions, skills and training must be based on valuing diverse forms of work, ensuring appropriate regulation of temporary agency work and tailored labour market policies – in line with the 2021 European Commission Effective Active Support to Employment (EASE) Recommendation on effective, active support to employment.

Increased access to skills development and training is one of the four pillars identified by the private employment industry to foster labour market reforms that will address the problem of labour shortages. In our fast-evolving world of work, it is a pressing need that we owe to face to ensure that we build better labour market outcomes for all.

First published by EurActiv, June 2023

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