Lifelong learning must become a basic skill

21 March 2016

Opening address by Mariëtte Hamer at the first OECD Skills Strategy Meeting

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Good morning ladies and gentlemen at this early hour of the day!

I would like to welcome you all to this first meeting for the purpose of developing a Skills Strategy for the Netherlands!

Also a warm welcome for the members of the OECD – team, who will host us through this day with a very ambitious programme. I hope you don’t mind me proceeding with these opening remarks in Dutch; an English version has been given to you in advance and there will be an interpreter available for translation from Dutch to English later this morning.

As President of the SER, I would like to emphasise on behalf of all three groups - the national employers’ confederations, the trade union federations and the independent experts – that we are particularly pleased to have been invited by the Dutch government to contribute to the development of a long-term Skills Strategy for the Netherlands.

The government has asked the OECD to draw up this Skills Strategy for the Netherlands, following the example of other countries including Norway, Austria and Spain.

Without the firm commitment of stakeholders, there is a danger that a Skills Strategy could remain something of a paper exercise. That is why three meetings are being held for invitees from the world of work and the world of education: practitioners who are active locally, regionally or nationally. I would also like to thank you on behalf of the OECD and the Ministries of Education, Culture and Science, Social Affairs and Employment, Economic Affairs and Finance for coming to The Hague today. We hope to be able to meet you again in May and September so that we can take the Skills Strategy to the next level. You will hear more about that at the end of the day.

I would like to use this opening address to say a few words about how very important it is to develop a Skills Strategy for the Netherlands and the unique opportunity that we have been given here today to help determine the direction that this strategy will take. There is a lot of work to get through, so I would like to keep this short.

Skills of the future

About a year ago we had a round-table meeting here at the SER to discuss the skills of the future. In a room that was much too small, we had very lively and inspiring discussions with a very diverse group of practitioners from the education sector and the business community. Many of them were seeking a more future-proof way of organising education and a better way of connecting it to the rapidly changing labour market.

Working and learning are becoming increasingly interwoven. I often hear that said and I fully agree. But what exactly does that actually mean?
Traditionally, education and work have been separate domains. Our educational system has its roots in a society which we have long ceased to identify with. The industrial society had a great need for workers who could operate machines and keep more or less standardised production processes running. This did not require many highly educated people and elementary reading and writing skills were sufficient for most jobs. Education provided future workers with a set of basic and occupational skills that would see them through the rest of their lives. When they left school, they left school forever. If they had to learn something new, they learned it on the job. Work did not change so quickly and a job for life was true for many.

Many of us have caught a glimpse of that society or may even have been part of it – as a child or from stories told at home by parents, family or grandparents. No car, no central heating, no TV, no washing machine…, that’s what life was like in those far off times. What changes have happened since, and all of them within a couple of generations!

Whereas we can hardly remember that old society and can barely imagine what it was like to live that way, the young people of today are now growing up in a time of rapid development which will dramatically change society “as we know it”.

When you see your kids or someone else’s busy with their smart phones, on their tablets and on social media, with messages full of incomprehensible abbreviations, do you ever get the feeling that these children – as soon as they are in charge – will simply get rid of all these complicated spelling and grammar rules? All those hours spent in the digital world, what does that do to them, how will they regard human interaction, collaboration and communication? And because I’m an optimist, what do we stand to gain from all of this? What skills are they developing that we can hardly master, if at all? What unimaginable and unpredictable discoveries will they amaze us with? I think our imagination is hopelessly lacking…!

In education, there is much talk about the benefits and drawbacks of “21st century skills”, based on the idea that our rapidly changing society will require people to have different skills. The problem is, how can we know what skills will be needed in future? There’s a lot that could be said about this, but in this case I’ll keep it brief: the skill of learning new knowledge and skills yourself is undoubtedly the first skill to learn!

Robots on the labour market

Future generations will grow up in a society which is characterised by ongoing innovations in technology and ICT which will have a major impact on our way of life, but also on the way we make things and do our work. The SER is currently preparing a recommendation for dealing with the consequences of technological developments for the labour market and for employment. Although there are many areas of uncertainty, it has been established that skill obsolescence will occur more quickly in many occupations. Work of a more routine nature will disappear sooner due to technological innovations than work that requires creativity and problem-solving skills. Certain occupations will disappear but new occupations will also be created.

The dynamism of the labour market is also increasing due to other developments. Take, for example, the sharp rise in the number of self-employed: the number of self-employed has grown from around 600,000 to over 1 million in the space of about five years. This group is extremely diverse. The number of people on temporary contracts, the flexible workforce, has grown substantially.

The increased dynamism on the labour market means that there is still a great need for well-trained staff. Human capital has been and continues to be the basis of our knowledge economy. In order to be a strong, sustainable and competitive knowledge economy in a globalising world, we will have to be above all a learning economy. For this to happen, it is absolutely essential that we invest in human capital.

Learning for life

The increasing speed at which skill obsolescence occurs on the labour market requires those in employment to constantly upgrade the knowledge and skills to keep up to date. During their working lives, many people will need retraining in order to remain in employment. For low-skilled or medium-skilled working people, upgrading to a higher level provides them with the prospect of longer term employability on the labour market.

In addition to formal training through attending courses, training sessions or educational programmes, it has been found that informal learning in the workplace and learning by doing are very important. Of all the time that working people spend on learning activities, as much as 96% is spent on informal learning and only 4% on attending courses or training sessions. That’s according to the Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market (Researchcentrum voor Onderwijs en Arbeidsmarkt, ROA). Having or developing a good learning culture helps working people to actively continue to develop. The SER is currently working on a recommendation on post-initial learning and how to encourage it. It is also looking at cooperative initiatives in the regions, in which education and the business community arrive at innovative solutions for better ways of combining working and learning, often with the involvement of municipalities, and improving links with the labour market.

The government has also prioritised the policy of lifelong learning. The government has taken measures by various means to provide adults with better access to publicly funded education. For example, experiments and pilot projects have been started to achieve the greater flexibility that will suit adult learners. The government is also using the Sustainable Employability Programme to encourage, among other things, practical initiatives for improving the learning culture in SMEs.

Recently, the Education Platform 2032 published recommendations on future-proofing the curriculum for primary and secondary education, at the request of the State Secretary for Education. In addition, an OECD review of the initial education system will shortly be published. This Skills Strategy will therefore mainly be focused on post-initial learning!

In the initial education system, students will have to be well prepared for "lifelong learning". And the foundations will be laid even earlier, during the preschool phase, as we have learned from a recent SER recommendation on childcare facilities.

The skill of continuing to develop yourself is of essential importance to the future labour market: lifelong learning must therefore become a basic skill. I used to say that learning is actually just as important as eating and drinking … That says it all!

© Dirk Hol