Closing the gap

Mindful
of skill shortages, governments across Europe are funding education and
vocational training. Bo Jones reports

As
the global shortage of skills and talent proves to be much more than simply
media hype, organisations right across Europe – struggling to attract and
retain the people they need to compete – are calling on their governments for
help. And government bodies are taking up this challenge, implementing
initiatives across the region to train and develop their people to match
workforce requirements.

The
European Union (EU) has been particularly active in promoting an increase in
the education levels of its citizens. At the Lisbon Summit in March 2000, it
set itself the aim of becoming "the world’s most dynamic and competitive
knowledge-based economy within ten years, capable of sustained economic growth
with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion". And it appears
that ministers in almost every member nation are still showing their commitment
to achieving this goal.

In
the run-up to the March 2001 Stockholm Summit, European premiers were heard
enthusing, "We should facilitate access to a quality education and
lifelong learning for all Union citizens" (Spain’s Jos‚ Azner); "I
would call for the creation of a high-level skills task force" (UK’s Tony
Blair); and "Education makes a fundamental contribution to economic growth
and employment to European citizenship and to personal development"
(France’s Jacques Chirac).

These
are all calls for affirmative action to help close the skills gap, but just how
much are the governments really doing?

Finland
adopted a new long-term development plan for education and research at the end
of 1999. The aim is "to target vocational training at those areas that are
threatened by shortages. In 2004, there will be 49,000 upper secondary places,
some of which will be provided in the form of apprenticeship. Arrangements for
financially supporting the adult population during periods of study will be
developed." It goes on, "The use of study vouchers as a form of financing
adult education and training will be investigated through experimentation."

Germany
has extended its 1999 emergency programme on training and employment for young
people for a further year. In addition to training, the programme will now also
include facilitating access to the jobs market through labour cost subsidies.

The
Irish government has launched an employer-led Training Networks Programme to
address the training needs of companies, particularly small and medium-sized
ones, many of which underinvest in training.

In
September 1999, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science in the
Netherlands, published an "Agenda for vocational training and adult
education". According to the ministry, this agenda is meant to
"underline the immense importance of vocational training and education for
the individual, the labour market and society as a whole".

The
Norwegian parliament has decided that all employees will be entitled to leave
for the purpose of individual education and training. Training, they say,
"must be work-related and part of a recognised education and training
programme. Financial support will be provided through the State Educational
Loan Fund".

The
Department for Education and Employment in the UK has introduced Small Firms
Training Loans (SFTL) so that small enterprises will be able to "afford to
pay for that essential training programme or consultancy advice about training
– and set their business on the path to success". Julie Madigan, chief
executive of the Manchester-based Manufacturing Institute, who has taken
advantage of an SFTL, says, "Cash flow is crucial for small organisations.
I think the SFTL is a very useful product for an SME like ours where human
resources and finances are tight. It’s definitely a route I’d be interested in using
for future training initiatives."

While
people in the UK may appreciate the government’s initiative to help close the
skills gap, elsewhere in Europe HR specialists are a little more sceptical. Jan
Croymans, director of education affairs and knowledge management for Belgacom,
Belgium’s one-time state-controlled telecommunications company, admits that
although the "government does do a lot, there are too many
contradictions". First, he explains, "you have to make a distinction
between the federal government and the governments of Flanders and Wallonia,
whose economic situations are very different. For example, it was recently
decided that companies should hire 3% of their staff from the unemployed. This
is fine in parts of Wallonia," he says. "But in Flanders, you simply
can’t find these people, so you have to do things differently in each region."

However,
there is one Belgian government agency he admires for doing the right thing –
VDAB, the Flemish employment and training service. "If you have a specific
problem," he enthuses, "they will help you solve it by providing
interim services and helping people acquire the skills you are looking for. And
they often intervene in the costs too."

EU
member states are also working with some of their Eastern neighbours to promote
business education. For example, the Estonian Business Education Programme is
the result of an agreement between the Danish and Estonian Ministries of
Education. The programme, which so far is taught only at selected schools, is
"aimed at those students interested in either starting their own
businesses or wishing to learn about the basic principles and requirements of
business operations".

Indeed,
the Estonian government seems to be taking the skilling of its workforce very
seriously. According to consulting firm KPMG, the government there "plans
to open a university specialising in information technology and
telecommunications. The new college will not only focus on the technical skills
needed to become employable in the IT field, but it will also teach managerial
and administrative expertise to encourage entrepreneurial ventures".

Likewise,
Estonia’s neighbour Latvia also enjoys a highly skilled workforce, an asset the
government is working hard to maintain. The Latvian government is committed to
substantially increasing funding for IT education by 20% year on year, and this
has already led to a 33% increase in the number of IT students in the country
in 2000. "The number of graduating students is expected to triple over the
next three years," according to KPMG.

Who
trains most?

Scandinavia,
the UK and the Netherlands are the employee training champions of Europe,
according to a European Union survey, with Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece the
back-markers. The Second European Survey on Working Conditions shows that only
five EU member states were above the "training average".

The
EU study measured "the proportion of employees who participated in
training provided by or paid for by employers over a 12-month period". The
results show a wide spectrum of training activity – or non-activity.

Further
information


VDAB: www.vdab.be


Small Firms Training Loans: www.lifelonglearning.co.uk


EU Online information service: www.europa.eu.int


KPMG: www.kpmg.com


DGXXII director general for education, training and youth: www.cec.lu

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