Structured dialogue and best practice sharing are key to boosting skills – Dragoș Pîslaru
As the European Year of Skills kicks off, political ideology must take a back seat. Dialogue with civil society organisations around skills must be entrenched, and the policy expertise and best practice work of the European Training Foundation must be promoted. So said Dragoș Pîslaru, a member of the European Parliament and Chair of its influential Committee on Employment and Social Affairs.
While there is an intricate inertia of systems, in the skills arena it is reassuring that there is both top-down and bottom-up pressure to dismantle resistance to change, Pîslaru said.
“CSOs are so important because they can be promoters of change and promoters of innovation. We may have excellent ideas, legislative proposals, and other initiatives at the EU level, but without actors who can put this into practice at the local level, implementation of skills development is problematic.”
Dragoș Pîslaru, former Minister for Labour in Romania, took part in a conference on “Civil Society for Lifelong Skills Development in Europe and Partner Countries”, held on 23 May at the European Commission Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion in Brussels.
The European Training Foundation (ETF), the Lifelong Learning Platform and the European Association for the Education of Adults have joined forces to promote policy dialogue and partnerships between governments and civil society organisations (CSOs) active in skills development and lifelong learning across Europe.
Dragoș Pîslaru spoke in a scene-setting session. He expanded on his ideas in an interview afterwards with the ETF.
Investing in people
Massively ramping up skills development and lifelong learning will be Europe’s priority during the European Year of Skills 2023, launched on 9 May.
“It took us a while to realise that investment in people is so important,” Pîslaru said. “We cannot reinvent ourselves without investing in people.” Europe does not have enough people with the right skills to confront the multiple crises it faces, and to deliver on its ambitious twin goals – the green transition and digital transformation.
“The European Year of Skills is not just another European year. It is crucial for the future. If we do not invest in skilling, upskilling, and reskilling, we will have big divides in our society.”
Countries will not be able to tackle the skills challenge alone”, Pîslaru told the conference. “How can we use the advances that CSOs put on the table, with their experience and projects – some localised and some already scaled – in order to make this happen?” Local and regional authorities are also key to a multi-level approach across the territory.
CSOs need to talk at the European level about skills development and engage with countries that are open to scaling up the best practices that they put forward and, importantly, also at the local and regional level to deliver together in partnerships.
Pîslaru pointed to two imperatives for joint action. The first is structured dialogue, and the second is “to stop reinventing the wheel”.
The need for structured dialogue on skills
“We need to have bridges and talk about and understand different recommendations at all levels, especially the local level,” he said. There is a tendency to localise skills interventions. For instance, there are skills hubs, skills centres and partnership initiatives between municipalities and CSOs, of which Barcelona provides a good example.
Pîslaru stressed in the interview that there is a plethora of evidence that the involvement of CSOs, other social partners and local and regional authorities, by far improves the design of strategies and policies. However, there are challenges.
When developing the EU Recovery and Resilience Facility, MEPs asked governments to pursue consultations with CSOs and other partners. “They said they don’t have time for that. There was a tough negotiation,” said Pîslaru. As a result, countries are required to include in national plans that they have consulted stakeholders. But generally, they do not realize enough consultation.
“Structured dialogue is not just to tick a box. Its purpose is to improve the design and the framework for implementation. Even consultations during the implementation can support the improvement of the implementation process.”
Structured dialogue should be the golden rule of policy design, said Pîslaru. “For impactful policies related to skills and investment in people, it is even more important to involve the CSOs and understand their grassroots perspective and solutions.”
Stop reinventing the wheel
“One of the most important things CSOs can bring to the table is their experience with testing different models, different projects, different ways of improving the current context,” Pîslaru said in the interview. Scaling is important when a best practice has ensured positive results, and has been tested and researched.
Countries should avoid trying to figure out from scratch how to approach challenges such as skills. “Look at what others have done, such as best practices in civil society, and then scale them.”
“You may reply that you cannot import things from one member state to the other, but you may have good practices in your own country. So scale first from local to the national level, and if some practices can be useful to other member states, then you can scale at the EU or regional level.”
“There is no need to redesign when there are practices that work and tangible results from the initiatives and innovative thinking of civil society organisations.”
The importance of the ETF
Pîslaru sees an important role for the ETF in furthering policy dialogue and partnerships between governments and CSOs around skills.
When Romania was preparing for EU accession, the ETF supported the development of vocational training in the country. Pîslaru worked on some of the projects: “It was a crucial support, framing the entire vocational, initial and lifelong learning systems in Romania.”
The ETF pushed the importance of doing local and regional needs analyses, and based on those findings, devising plans that focus on the skills needed.
“Years have passed. The ETF has not changed but I would say it is doing even better work by pushing the values, and the know-how that we have at the EU level, to countries that want to get closer to the EU and that we would consider part of a greater community of learning that we would like to share.”
Pîslaru continued: “The ETF’s work is really important, but unfortunately it is not that well known, in terms of PR.” He urged the ETF to raise the profile of its work.
The MEP said that the agencies under the supervision of the Committee of Employment and Social Affairs have many synergies. So for instance, by working together the ETF and CEDEFOP – European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training – could “nail down” the design, strategies and research into what does, and what does not work in skills development.
“So we have this ecosystem of agencies, where the ETF is playing a crucial role in delivering on its policy objectives.” Last year Pîslaru launched an event that brings together all the EU agencies under the Committee’s remit, to share and discuss their work. Another event will be hosted by Pîslaru and EMPL agencies this year.
No place for ideology in skills development
The European Parliament might quarrel over ideological issues. “But we have one team working on skills,” Pîslaru said. “ We have complete understanding that this is a priority. Irrespective of where we are on the political spectrum, we acknowledge the need to invest in people. This is amazing, and gives us a lot of political support for what we do.”
Indeed, there was “near unanimity” in approval for ideals linked to the European Year of Skills.
Strategies for investing in people, Pîslaru told the ETF, should not be over-burdened by ideology. “This is about being sure that we preserve our democracy because otherwise a lot of people will be left behind and they will have a grudge against the European Union because it has not delivered for them. Then we should not be surprised by the rise of extremism or European scepticism.”
What is lacking, he said, is actions that deliver tangible results. “Can we create a revolution at local and regional levels where municipalities and regions compete in skills implementation?”
Pîslaru said MEPs are determined to push the skills agenda. “You have our full support for partnerships between CSOs and public authorities. The European Parliament will contribute as much as we can.”
The European Year of Skills
Interestingly, the European Year of Skills could help create crucial links between social and economic policy, Pîslaru argued.
For instance, Parliament is negotiating the Net-Zero Industry Act, part of the EU’s commitment to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. New and more skills will be essential for industry and the economy to move forward in this direction, thus the file includes a separate chapter on skills.
As an economist and a member of both the Employment and Social Affairs Committee and the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, Pîslaru is helping to forge cross-sectoral links.
“I’m trying to create bridges because we will not be able to deliver social systems and improve skills and education without the proper financing and involvement of the private sector as part of an economic process and development. On the other hand, you are not going to be able to deliver on economic goals if you don’t invest in people and social policies.”
There will be many events and initiatives during the European Year of Skills. However, the most important will be to finish the year on 8 May 2024 having already made a positive impact on skills development that can help Europe meet the challenges it confronts and boost further action.
Nothing less than a paradigm shift is needed, from seeing social policy – including skills – as expenditure rather than investment. “Investing in people is not just a slogan. It is about investing in something crucial if we want to deliver economic development as well, and understanding the returns.” Skills investment will bring money back into the treasury down the line.
“It is a fruitful debate and a very important opportunity.”
To know more about the role of civil society in lifelong learning join the ETF's Learning Connects live discussion 7 June at 15.00 CEST.