22nd Sep 2023


The EU 'Year of Skills' is only about skills — that's a problem

  • Labour shortages predominate in sectors with poor job quality, ie pay, opportunities and training — such as healthcare, transport and agriculture (Photo: Unsplash)
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About three percent of jobs in the EU were vacant at the end of 2022. The figure marked a historic high, particularly severe in Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany — where it hovered around 4.5 percent.

The scale of the problem is matched by the bloc's response: 2023 has been named the European Year of Skills.

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In practice, this means one of the EU's agenda priorities is to help businesses, especially small and medium-sized ones, to tackle labour shortages, and individuals to get the right skills for quality jobs.

However, as the EU agency Eurofound's data underlines, this strategy has a problem: tackling labour shortages is not just about skills.

"Skills mismatches are only one — albeit important — part of the phenomenon", writes Eurofound researcher Tina Weber, as more than 46 percent of the adult population in Europe needs up-skilling and re-skilling (that's some 128 million people, according to Cedefop).

The digital and green transitions only add more challenges. The battery sector alone will need 800,000 trained workers by 2025, and the solar industry will require one million by 2030.

"Skills are vital, but the EU must also ensure that new green jobs are decent", Katy Wiese, policy officer for economic transition and gender equality at the European Environmental Bureau) tells EUobserver, on what is missing in the EU Green Industrial Plan.

She adds: "The lack of generational lens in the plan is striking".

The roadmap, which EEB considers vague in terms of necessary skills and funding, does not mention young people, despite the high unemployment rates among them, nor does it pay attention to groups excluded from the labour market, such as informal workers, Roma communities or the reintegration of the older population.

And beneath these new challenges, the previous ones are still pressing. According to data from the European working conditions telephone survey 2021, labour shortages predominate mainly in sectors with poor job quality. One criteria for that is measured as the difference between what is asked for and what is received in a job. For example, work intensity or physical and psychological tasks, versus training opportunities or flexible working hours.

The results? Sectors such as healthcare, transport, agriculture, retail, and hospitality are the most strained, and also the ones that suffer the most from labour shortages.

Klaus Hegeer, secretary general at the European Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (CESI), gives the example of the health sector in Germany. Because of a lack of public investment, working conditions are not high enough to attract enough Germans into the sector, so the country looks to other countries, especially eastern Europe, to fill these vacancies. The effect is a braindrain in other countries where working conditions are worse, such as Romania, Latvia, or Bulgaria.

"There is a holistic approach needed," says Heeger, naming in addition to the need for up-skilling and re-skilling, more investment in the public sector, a greater role for social partners and, at the heart of the strategy, good working conditions.

CESI also stresses that it is important not to engage in de-skilling, i.e. the worsening of the minimum requirements common to all member states in order to attract workers from third countries. That situation can occur in regard to the recognition of diplomas, or the minimum language requirements necessary to perform a job.

Employment commissioner Nicholas Schmit himself spoke of the need for quality jobs in the EU: "Obviously in some areas, especially care, we need people from outside, but [...] first we have to revalue these professions, make them more attractive also for people inside the European Union through better salaries and better working conditions," he said in a recent interview.

And quality jobs are not only well-paid jobs.

In Romania, a new law five years ago increased net salaries for primary care doctors by 131 percent and for nurses by 65 percent. The measure achieved higher talent retention, but "the measure proved insufficient to encourage doctors to work in smaller cities and rural areas, partly as a result of poorer health infrastructure and less attractive living and working conditions [than abroad]," according to the Eurofound report.

Their overall findings? Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution for all countries and sectors, there are some aspects that seem to work: the right assessment of shortage factors, the high degree of adaptability and learning, the targeting of the beneficiaries of these interventions, or the continuous monitoring of the results of these measures.

And even when these actions work, as in the case of Romania, "the scale of the measures may be too small or their links with the broader supporting policy framework insufficient to register a more significant impact at aggregate level", the study concludes.

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