Ukraine: advancing work skills in a war zone

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It is clear from the outset that this is not going to be a conventional discussion on skills development, because Dr Yuriy Balanyuk, Chair of the National Qualifications Agency (NQA) and Ukraine’s National Coordinator for the European Year of Skills (EYS), begins by saying that he has just taken his children to a Kyiv kindergarten where workers were constructing a bomb shelter. As he tried to settle his two boys in, ballistic missiles and ‘kamikaze drones’ rained down on the capital city destroying, for example, a building with 100 residents inside.  

“To date, 3,798 education institutions have been damaged by bombs, of which 365 have been completely destroyed,“ he says. 

In this scenario it is more understandable that when we start talking about essential skills, Balanyuk says that one of his country’s leading priorities is how to handle a gun and help the injured. “First we must talk about skills that save lives,” he says.  

“Nearly everyone in Ukraine knows how to do first aid. They know how to stop blood flowing. People have learnt how to use ambulances. When Russia invaded, a lot of civilians acquired guns. If ordinary people do not take weapons in their hands and know how to use them, we will not protect our country.” 

Qualification development context 

Before the war, Ukraine established the legal structure to establish the NQA, which officially began its activities in November 2019. At the time, the country had a mishmash of regulations that partially determined qualifications, but they were outdated and did not correspond to best practice in vocational education. In this incoherent framework, mechanisms had to be established to ensure that policies on professional qualifications are harmonised with other countries and updated, and non-formal learning is accredited. 

“The NQA ensures the transparent and effective assignment of professional qualifications based on modern occupational standards, supports implementation of the National Qualification Framework (NQF), accredits qualification centres that approve skills in formal and informal education and maintains a Qualifications Register, which includes occupational standards and professional qualifications,” Balanyuk explains.  

In this process, the EYS’ coordinator stresses that the European Training Foundation (ETF) – that helps European Union (EU) neighbouring countries maximise their human capital potential by reform of their education, training, and labour market systems – played a critical role in February 2020 by organising a meeting in Turin to assist in structuring Ukraine’s NQA. It did this in part by highlighting good practice in European countries and the importance of occupational standards.  

“Our system is not the same, but it is similar, because we use our NQF to make evidence-based comparisons. The NQF level is indicated in the occupational standards, which enables us to speak ‘the same language’ as European countries. Now we are preparing to cross-reference the European Qualifications Framework with the Ukrainian NQF. That is essential for us, as we want to join the EU and this process helps us to become a member faster.” 

Today, there are 292 occupational standards in Ukraine, and those involved in the labour market recognise that without them there will be no skilled workers. This growing awareness is demonstrated by the fact that the NQA has received 401 applications for the development of new occupational standards, plus requests for the amendment of 32 others. This level of engagement means that employers are clearly monitoring skills trends and making changes.  

“Now we have 50 qualification centres that can approve qualifications in informal education,” says Balanyuk. “Additionally, we have validated the qualifications of over 2,100 people who are successfully working in a new profession.”    

European Year of Skills’ impact 

Despite the challenges, the NQA has engaged 41 partners – including representatives from the labour market, government, trade unions and education – to advance the EYS. 

“In addition to the myriad of forums held nationwide at educational institution level, the four main entities have helped us organise 34 large-scale skill events,” says Balanyuk. 

One recent example was the IV International Forum ‘Human capital: skills for the future’, which involved over 3,000 people and took place on 16 November 2023. “This provided the opportunity to share experiences and identify priorities to ensure that the labour market is best equipped,” he says. Another example was last month’s ‘Human Capital 2024: Odessa’ forum on reskilling and adult education”, continues Balanyuk.  

The event highlighted the continuing demand of Odessa’s labour market for the recognition of informal and non-formal education and made a powerful statement. “It is important that it was held in Odessa, which is located 100 km from the Russian frontline,” he says. 

Post-war skills   

The EYS's coordinator says that Ukraine is working to close the gap between today’s labour market demands and adults’ actual skills and qualifications. 

Russia has destroyed a lot of infrastructure such as bridges, telecommunication centres, and hydroelectric stations, and so a lot of the required skills and qualifications will be in building work, such as operating road construction machines, installing reinforced concrete structures, and welding.  

“After we win the war, we must rebuild our destroyed cities,” he says. “So, these competences will be crucial for Ukraine’s recovery, which can now be validated in the qualification centres via our updated occupational standards.” 

‘A good future’  

“The EYS has aided us a lot because everyone understands that if they participate, they help bring Ukraine in line with European qualification standards and systems and move us towards being a part of the EU,” says Balanyuk.  

Recently he travelled to Brussels where he and his team learnt how upskilling programmes were progressing in Austria, France, Germany, Greece and Italy.

“We learned that we need to focus on promoting learning through upskilling and reskilling processes, to offer financial incentives for training, and foster a lifelong learning culture among all stakeholders,” he says. 

“The fact that near the frontlines Ukrainians are undertaking reskilling courses means that they believe in a good future in the EU,” he concludes. “People believe we will win and rebuild our country to European standards.” 

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