What is new about Germany’s national strategy for continuing education?

Well, the first thing that is new is the fact that it exists at all. Under the German federal constitution, responsibility for education lies with the individual states (Länder) and the federal government (Bund) is cast in a largely supporting role. The new strategy is the first of its kind, jointly produced by the Bund, the Länder, employers, and labour unions.

“Sharing knowledge, shaping the future, growing together: National Strategy for Continuing Education”

The rationale offered for this spirit of cooperation is digitisation. One much-cited study claims that a quarter of German employees work in occupations at high risk of replacement through the new technologies, and that report is duly mentioned in the new strategy.  The focus here is on workplace skills as a means of tackling the challenges of digitisation for individuals and enterprises alike, with a particular focus on small and medium sized firms and on the least skilled workers.

The strategy sets out ten ‘action goals’, and commits the partners (federal ministries for education and labour, Länder, employers, unions) to putting them into practice. These goals are:

  1. Supporting the transparency of continuing education possibilities and provision.
  2. Closing gaps in support , putting new incentives in place, adjusting existing support systems.
  3. Strengthening comprehensive lifelong educational advice and skills guidance, especially in SMEs.
  4. Strengthening the responsibility of the social partners.
  5. Testing and strengthening the quality and quality evaluation of continuing education provision.
  6. Making visible and recognising workers’ prior skills in vocational education.
  7. Developing continuing education provision and certification.
  8. Strategic development of educational institutions as skill centres for vocational continuing education.
  9. Strengthening continuing education staff and preparing them for digital change.
  10. Strengthening strategic foresight and optimising continuing education statistics.

if anyone wants more detail of these broad goals and their implementation, let me know.

Imp-lementation starts after the summer break. Responsibility for overseeing progress against these goals is being handed to a national committee of the partners, which is charged with producing a joint progress report in 2021. At the same time, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has been asked to produce a national report on continuing education in Germany.

Those who look for a broad and civic approach to lifelong learning will not find it in this strategy. Its focus is aimed entirely at change in continuing vocational education, with a view to reducing the rigidities of Germany’s skills system, and promoting greater labour flexibility flexibility in the face of tech change, and digitisation in particular. As a strategy for upskilling, though, it’s an enormously interesting development, and given Germany’s wider influence in Europe and beyond, it’s worth watching closely.

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Lifelong learning and the age of automation

The Economist Intelligence Unit has compiled an Automation Readiness Index, which it says is designed to compare ‘how well-prepared 25 countries are for the challenges and opportunities of intelligent automation’.

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I think the study while flawed is nevertheless interesting. The participating countries were selected on a variety of grounds; they include the world’s largest economies, along with others selected on the basis of relevance (Estonia and Singapore were judged to demonstrate key good practices) and geography (four countries representing ‘key emerging economies from Latin America, South-east Asia, and the Middle East’).

The selected indicators and associated metrics make for interesting reading. There are 52 indicators, divided into three broad categories: innovation environment, education policies, and labour market policies, with weightings that favour the first two over the third.In each domain, the researchers drew on their judgements of qualitative evidence (however, I can’t find much about how they did this) as well as on available quantitative data.

There will always be questions about the fit between published data and what it might claim to measure. For example, within the education cluster the researchers evaluated ‘continuous education’ on the basis of ‘the existence of national lifelong learning programmes’ and ‘financial support for lifelong learning’. Within the labour market cluster, they judged ‘targeted retraining’ on the basis of ‘Existence of retraining programmes for displaced workers focusing on transition to high-demand sectors’.

So there are some obvious definitional questions, as well as a degree of subjectivity in how these criteria are evaluated. Among areas missing or neglected, I’m articularly struck by the absence of any interest in how well the wider public is informed about digitization and artificial intellegence, or in which skills will likely be in demand as a result of automation (though the study did look at the role of social dialogue on the future of work in general).

The findings are nevertheless interesting, if not generally very surprising. For example, although the UK is placed 8th overall, it is 10th in respect of continuous education and the researchers conclude that ‘the country could do more to support lifelong learning, in particular, to boost its rank in education policy’. The authors seem articularly interested in measures designed to promote individual demand for learning, such as the individual learning accounts that have been adopted in Singapore and France in recent years.

In short, then, no surprises here but some useful food for thought. In particular, the report reinforces my belief that individual learning accounts remain the best available option for raising demand for learning, particularly among under-represented groups of learner; and it also confirms that countries which aim to take advantage of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ need to include lifelong learning as an integral feature of their strategy.

Trump’s Workforce Policy Advisory Board could be a model – except that it is advising Trump

Trump’s creation of American Workforce Policy Advisory Board is being presented as a response to the competitive threat posed by what is sometimes called the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The rapid adoption of digital technologies is now being followed by AI and robotics, and like governments across the old industrial nations, the Trump administration has noticed that the workforce has different skills from those demanded in the new economy.

american

The challenge is, as ever, figuring out how to develop the skills that seem to be needed. I say “seem to be” deliberately, as it isn’t at all clear what those skills might be. But again, that is precisely what the new Board is being asked to do: its remit is to propose “ways to encourage the private sector and educational institutions to combat the skills crisis by investing in and increasing demand-driven education, training, and retraining, including training through apprenticeships and work-based learning opportunities”.

The Board will report directly to the White House, through the President’s National Council for the American Worker. Its membership is impressive: as well as co-chairs Ivanka Trump, who is formally described as an adviser to the President, and Wilbur Ross, the US’ Secretary of Commerce, it includes a number of CEOs , a senior trade unionist, representatives of the community colleges and universities, and the director of the Milken Institute, an influential economic think tank.

Ivanka Trump of course represents a second, and possibly more sure, door to the Oval Office. Her public statement on the Board’s launch was revealing, emphasising as she did the goal of “inclusive growth” in which “all Americans can participate in the opportunities created by the booming economy”.

So in some ways, the Board is well-placed to deliver. Its focus is on the supply of skills rather than raising demand, which might require intervention in the running of those corporations that are so well represented among its members. Instead it is likely that the business-dominated Board will concentrate on changes to provision (including, interestingly, apprenticeships).

A supply side focus is of course hardly unique – it is difficult to think of a single government that makes demand-side inteeventions the core of its skills policy. But the US government appears to assume that increasing levels of employment are themselves a signal that it is the remaining jobless and new young workers who need to be fixed, and not the shape of the economy.

Further, most of the key levers of change – whether in provision or demand – do not lie with the federal government. The states are the key public actors, and many have already shown that they are happy to ignore this federal administration.

The bigger problem, though, is of course the nature of that administration. On past experience, both the Advisory Board and the National Council will witness a slew of resignations once they have started reporting, with neither the reports nor resignations having any visible effect on policy. Notoriously, this President’s attention shifts elsewhere. Investing in infrastructure and rejuvenating the old industrial regions formed an under-reported (on this side of the Atlantic at least) part of Trump’s campaign promise. I’d like to think that he might see the Advisory Board’s work as a way of delivering higher skills across the workforce, but I’m not betting on it.