1. Assessment and recommendations

Leading up to 2020, Germany experienced a decade of robust economic growth, having recovered faster than other OECD and European countries from the global financial and economic crisis. Unemployment rates fell to their lowest level since reunification, and sharp employment growth brought with it critical shortages of skilled labour (Bundesagentur für Arbeit, 2019[1]; OECD, 2020[2]). Individuals benefited from relatively high standards of living and high levels of well-being by OECD standards, with many seeing real wage gains (OECD, 2018[3]; OECD, 2020[2]). As the COVID-19 pandemic spread and global output collapsed, Germany’s GDP contracted sharply, with data pointing to a fall of more than 5% in 2020 (OECD, 2021[4]). Yet, to date, employment and unemployment rates have been less affected by the COVID-19 crisis than in many other OECD countries. This is due in large part to the government’s strong action in extending the well-established short-time work scheme (Kurzarbeit), the provision of liquidity support for enterprises and other measures to stimulate domestic demand.

Now more than ever, one of the main concerns for policy-makers in Germany is to ensure that there is a sustained recovery back to the strong social and economic outcomes experienced prior to the pandemic. Even before the crisis, the nature of work was changing through digitalisation, population ageing and the transition to a low-carbon economy. According to OECD analysis, 18% of jobs in Germany are at high risk of automation in the next 15 years, while a further 36% are at risk of significant change, adding up to one of the highest shares of jobs at risk across OECD countries (Nedelkoska and Quintini, 2018[5]). The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic may well accelerate the pace of structural change, including the adoption of new technologies and ways of working, in sectors such as manufacturing, and the labour market as a whole. As some client-oriented service sectors face longer-term disruption, people currently covered by the short-time work scheme may lose their jobs. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, it becomes even more important to ensure well-functioning continuing education and training systems that enable individuals to upskill and reskill in response to these developments.

Data from the 2018 German Adult Education Survey suggests that 54% of adults aged 18-64 in Germany take part in continuing education and training per year (BMBF, 2019[6]). According to data from the 2016 European Adult Education Survey,1 which allows for cross-country comparison, participation of adults aged 25-64 in Germany is slightly above the average of European OECD countries. However, it lags behind other OECD countries with similar skill development systems, i.e. Austria (60% learning participation), the Netherlands (64%) and Switzerland (69%).2

The OECD’s Priorities for Adult Learning Dashboard (PAL) looks at differences in CET participation between different socio-economic groups across OECD countries (OECD, 2019[7]). It shows that, on aggregate, Germany has some of the largest inequalities in CET participation in the OECD, exceeded only by Chile, the Netherlands and the Slovak Republic. Adults with low skills, those on low wages and those working in small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have particularly low participation rates. OECD countries with high-performing CET systems, such as New Zealand, Norway and Sweden, achieve substantially higher participation of these groups and lower inequalities.3

The provision of continuing education and training is rarely organised in a systemic way in OECD countries. CET structures are best described as complex landscapes accommodating a variety of providers, policy frameworks and stakeholder interests (OECD, 2019[7]). Germany has one of the most complex governance structures of CET and some national observers have criticised the weak institutionalisation of this policy area (Autorengruppe Bildungsberichterstattung, 2018[8]). Self-responsibility, decentralisation, pluralism and strong federalism shape governance, provision and financing of CET (Desjardins, 2017[9]). This is both a great strength, as provision can cater to the diverse needs of individuals, organisations and (regional) labour markets, and a weakness, as it comes with increased challenges for co-ordination and co-operation.

Companies, the social and economic partners, CET providers and the government at national and federal state level share responsibility for CET. Social and economic partners play a key role in the CET landscape, from regulating certain aspects of the landscape to negotiating collective and company agreements with effect on CET. The National Skills Strategy (Nationale Weiterbildungsstrategie, NWS), adopted in 2019, is an ambitious step for greater coordination in this policy area. The first strategy of its kind, it brings together the federation and federal states, the Federal Employment Agency, and the social and economic partners to develop a common strategy on CET (BMAS et al., 2019[10]). The expressed aims of the strategy are to co-ordinate CET policies, increase transparency, improve access to CET opportunities and financial support, and work towards a new culture of CET in Germany. The strategy includes a wide set of goals and commitments of the involved stakeholders. It is a significant step towards the development of a more coherent and strategic approach to policy-making in CET and is widely appreciated by the involved partners. It will be critical to institutionalise the collaboration in the context of the NWS beyond the current legislative period, as well as to develop further its ambition.

Many OECD countries have CET laws that define rights and responsibilities of different actors in the CET landscape and ensure that CET policy is developed in a coherent manner. Austria and Switzerland, for example, regulate CET in a single law that sets out definitions, responsibilities, organisation and funding of CET. While Austria has had a federal law on CET since 1973, encompassing job-related and general CET (BGBI. Nr.171/1973 über die Förderung der Erwachsenenbildung und des Volksbüchereiwesens aus Bundesmitteln), Switzerland introduced a nationwide framework law on CET in 2017 (WeBiG, Weiterbildungsgesetz). The German CET landscape currently lacks such clear systematisation and common legal frameworks. It is instead regulated by a multitude of laws and other frameworks at the federal and state level, which relate to specific aspects of CET. The absence of an overarching framework constitutes a challenge to the coherent and structural development of a future-ready German CET landscape.

There are an estimated 18 000 public and private CET providers in Germany, most of which provide a mix of job-related and general CET (BIBB, 2020[11]). This diverse landscape of providers is the result of a historical supply-driven development process, shaped by market mechanisms and limited state intervention. Some providers and areas of provision, notably formal learning opportunities, CET in the context of Active Labour Market Policies and distance learning, are governed and quality-assured through laws and regulations. By contrast, many non-formal learning opportunities are subject to quality assurance only on a voluntary basis. Eighty percent of CET providers use at least one of several quality assurance systems (BIBB, 2019[12]). This set-up makes the system difficult to navigate for individuals, in particular for disadvantaged groups. Many OECD countries have developed comprehensive and streamlined quality-assurance systems for CET (OECD, 2021[13]). Austria, for example, introduced the umbrella certification Ö-Cert in 2012, which sets minimum standards for providers along five quality dimensions and allows providers to use existing quality certifications to get certified.

More detailed information on the assessment and recommendations relating to the governance of the German CET landscape can be found in Chapter 3.

Ideally, CET systems provide comprehensive support for individuals to help them adapt to changes in the labour market and manage their transitions. Guidance services help individuals to identify their skill development needs and to navigate the complex landscape of CET opportunities. They provide private and public benefits (OECD, 2004[14]; OECD, 2021[15]). Validation processes increase the visibility of individual’ skill-sets. Modularised and partial qualifications provide flexible learning paths to manage transitions. Some OECD countries have CET systems that integrate guidance, validation and partial qualifications. In Portugal, for example, more than 300 Qualifica Centres are one-stop shops for information, guidance, the analysis of existing skills. sign-posting to validation procedures and the development of an education and training path.

In Germany, career guidance structures and approaches across the country are as diverse as the CET landscape itself. Guidance is provided by different government actors, social partners, chambers, CET providers, as well as commercial and non-profit private providers. The Federal Employment Agency provides career guidance through its employment agencies and job centres. It has traditionally focused on the unemployed and those at risk of unemployment, but is now expanding into providing guidance to all adults (Lebensbegleitende Berufsberatung, LBB) (BA, 2019[16]; Dauth et al., 2018[17]). At the time of writing, limited information was available on details of the implementation of the LBB. In addition, federal states and municipalities are funding and co-ordinating a multitude of career guidance measures for adults. There is a wide range of online information offers, which are not always co-ordinated, as well as a phone helpline financed by the BMBF since 2015. On the one hand, this plurality of guidance structures facilitates the provision of tailored services for different target groups and sectors. On the other hand, this diversity is difficult to navigate for individuals and leads to unequal access to such services across the German territory (BIBB, 2019[18]). Accordingly, one of the commitments agreed upon in the NWS is to streamline the available online career guidance, amongst others, by establishing an online guidance platform (BMAS et al., 2019[10]).

Germany’s approach to validating non-formal and informal learning lags behind more mature validation systems in other OECD countries (Ball, 2019[19]; Münchhausen and Seidel, 2015[20]), such as Denmark, Finland, France or Portugal. There is no common legal framework and the landscape lacks coherence and co-ordination. Existing approaches typically relate only to some educational sub-sectors, occupations or economic sectors and affect a small number of individuals in a given year. While the 2012 recommendation of the Council of the European Union has brought some momentum to the topic, the formal approaches developed to date have limited scope and reach (e.g. ValiKom), and only one of the existing approaches – the external student examination (Externenprüfung) – immediately leads to a full qualification. Instruments for the assessment and documentation of skills (e.g. MySkills) fill some of the gaps left by the absence of validation measures. However, many of these tools have a limited planning horizon due to project-based funding, narrow area of application and lack of de facto recognition in the labour market (Pielorz and Werquin, 2019[21]; Ball, 2019[19]). The NWS itself gives a strong judgement of the present system, stating “there are no uniform, comprehensive and standardised opportunities in Germany for informally and non-formally acquired job-related skills to be reliably verified” (BMAS et al., 2019[10]). In the context of the NWS, the BMBF, the federal states and social partners are examining possibilities of anchoring tested validation procedures nationwide.

Modular CET and partial qualifications are key to the creation of more flexible learning paths needed in the context of accelerating structural changes in the labour market and the time constraints facing many adult learners. In Germany, the development of partial qualifications has primarily taken place in projects, which have been limited in time and scope. A consistent approach is lacking across the territory, and there is resistance to partial qualifications by some key players in the system. These stakeholders are concerned that partial qualifications do not improve the occupational situation of employees and shift in-company training costs to the tax payer. Good practice from other OECD countries shows that modularisation and partial qualifications can make CET systems more inclusive by providing flexible pathways for adult learners. In Denmark, for example, learners have an exceptional amount of flexibility, as they can combine modules from different kinds of CET provision (basic, higher, vocational, ALMPs, adult liberal education) into essentially tailor-made formal qualifications (Desjardins, 2017[9]). In Finland, both the initial and the continuing vocational education and training systems are fully modularised. A validation process at the start of each vocational programme ensures that existing skills are recognised and individuals only take the modules they need (Cedefop, 2019[22]).

There is room to develop policies on guidance, validation and partial qualifications in a more co-ordinated manner. Such joined-up approaches already exist for specific target groups, notably migrants, where the IQ-Network (IQ-Netzwerk) takes a co-ordinated approach to linking up and sign-posting to guidance, recognition of prior learning and partial qualifications.

More detailed information on the assessment and recommendations relating to guidance, validation and partial qualifications can be found in Chapter 4.

Two of the questions most frequently asked by policy-makers in the area of CET are: i) how much investment in CET is needed to address the labour market changes brought about by digitalisation and other megatrends; and ii) who should pay for it. Currently, there is no international benchmark for what constitutes a sufficient level of investment and who should make it.

CET may not require the same level of funding as initial education, but it is nevertheless a cost-intensive endeavour, requiring significant resources. A small number of studies estimate the yearly investment in CET in Germany. However, the results are not consistent between studies, due to diverging definitions of CET, a focus on specific sub-sectors or target groups, different data sources and distinct approaches to modelling costs (Dohmen and Cordes, 2019[23]; Müller and Wenzelmann, 2018[24]; Statistisches Bundesamt, 2020[25]; Thiele, Behringer and Schönfeld, 2016[26]). One of the most comprehensive recent studies suggests that individuals, enterprises and public bodies may invest up to EUR 36 billion per year in CET (Dohmen and Cordes, 2019[23]). This includes direct and indirect costs of participation in formal and non-formal CET. By comparison, according to data from the German statistical office (Statistisches Bundesamt, 2020[25]), total investment in initial education in 2017 was EUR 32 billion in 2017 for early childhood education and care; EUR 101 billion for general and vocational primary, secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary education; and EUR 42 billion for tertiary education (ISCED 5-8).

Internationally comparable data on the funding of CET is even more limited, making it difficult to benchmark investment in Germany against that of other countries. One of the first and only known attempts to generate cross-country comparable data on funding for CET to date finds that, in 2009, investment in CET in Germany was equivalent to about 1.2% of GDP (FiBS/DIE, 2013[27]). This was lower than in a number of countries with comparable skill development systems, namely Austria (1.7% of GDP), Denmark (2.2% of GDP), the Netherlands (1.5% of GDP) and Switzerland (1.5% of GDP). Up-to-date data on investment in specific sub-sectors of the CET system are easier to obtain. According to data from the OECD Labour Market Policy database, for example, German public investment stands at around 0.18% of GDP in training-related Active Labour Market Policies (ALMPs). This is higher than the OECD average (0.11%), but less than half of the investment made by Austria (0.43%), Denmark, (0.39%) and Finland (0.38%). In the short-term, there is a case for stronger public investment in CET, considering the unequal access to CET opportunities for different target groups and across regions, and the substantial benefits of CET for countries and societies as a whole. Public investment is also critical in the context of the economic fall-out from the COVID-19 crisis, which is putting private spending under pressure. In the medium-term, Germany should consider raising investment by all involved actors, including individuals and enterprises.

More detailed information on the assessment and recommendations relating to the funding of the German CET landscape can be found in Chapter 5.

Germany incentivises participation in CET using a range of instruments. Each federal state, the federal administration, and different departments within it offer incentives for individuals and companies, often for very specific target groups. While this allows for approaches to be tailored to different target groups and regional needs, the overall incentive system lacks coherence, strategy and transparency from a user perspective (Cordes, 2020[28]; Dohmen and Cordes, 2019[29]).

Several OECD countries are currently experimenting with streamlining and promoting single financial incentive schemes for individuals (OECD, 2019[30]). The French Individual Learning Account (ILA, Compte Personnel de Formation) is one of the most prominent examples of such a single incentive. Introduced in 2015, the ILA allows employees to amass training entitlements over time. Entitlements amount to EUR 500 per year (EUR 800 per year for low-skilled adults) up to a ceiling of EUR 5 000 (EUR 8 000 for low-skilled adults) (Perez and Vourc’h, 2020[31]).

The recent Skills Development Opportunities Act (Qualifizierungschancengesetz) and the Work of Tomorrow Act (Arbeit-von-Morgen-Gesetz, Gesetz zur Förderung der beruflichen Weiterbildung im Strukturwandel und zur Weiterentwicklung der Ausbildungsförderung) are positive developments, introducing a single incentive for enterprises encompassing all target groups, with progressive funding for enterprises and individuals with greater support needs. The results of these reforms remain to be seen and should be carefully evaluated.

Some financial support gaps remain, for example for employed individuals with obsolete skillsets who want to take part in training on their own initiative or participation in longer non-formal learning opportunities on an individual’s initiative. More generally, while several instruments incentivise vocational upskilling, there are no public incentives for the take-up of CET to train for shortage occupations or to acquire in-demand skills. Many OECD countries steer such investment in in-demand skills (OECD, 2017[32]). In Estonia, for example, all training in the context of Active Labour Market Policies delivers in-demand skills in line with the forecasts of the Estonian Skills Assessment and Anticipation system OSKA (OECD, 2020[33]).

More detailed information on the assessment and recommendations relating to financial incentives for CET can be found in Chapter 5.

Money and time are two sides of the same coin. Data from the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) and the Adult Education Survey (AES) show that lack of time for work-related reasons is a bigger obstacle to CET participation than financial barriers. Currently, Germany has no nationwide legislation on education and training leave. Most federal states have their own legislation or regulatory frameworks, which enable individuals to take five days of education and training leave per year on average. While this may be sufficient for shorter non-formal training courses, it does not enable the take-up of longer CET opportunities, like the kind of substantial occupational retraining that may be needed in the context of digitalisation and structural change. In addition to the federal states’ arrangements for education and training, a number of collective agreements regulate educational leave for different sectors. In Bavaria, for example, employees in the metal and electrical industries have the right to unpaid educational leave of two weeks per year (DGB Bayern, 2021[34]). Employers are encouraged to continue paying wages in this time.

Many OECD countries have nationally regulated education and leave policies (OECD, 2019[7]). Many but not all countries provide compensation for foregone earnings either directly to learners or to employers. Norway has the longest defined education and training leave across OECD countries. There, employees are entitled to up to three years of unpaid educational leave when they have worked more than three years and been with their employer more than two years. This is followed by Austria, where employees are entitled to one year of paid educational leave every four years. A number of other countries, including Estonia, Finland and Lithuania, allow individuals to take up to 30 days of leave per year.

More detailed information on the assessment and recommendations relating to education and training leave can be found in Chapter 5.

Across the OECD countries, adults with low skills are less likely to participate in learning than higher-skilled individuals. Those adults who already have high skills and qualifications when entering the labour market tend to acquire even more over the life-course, thereby widening the gap that already exists at the end of initial education (Boeren, 2009[35]; Kilpi-Jakonen et al., 2014[36]). Engaging low-skilled adults in learning is key for ensuring their societal and economic inclusion, the innovativeness and competitiveness of enterprises, and the health of the economy as a whole (Woessmann, 2016[37]).

Across OECD countries, policy-makers are keen to find ways to engage more adults with low skills in learning. Germany displays particularly large differences in learning participation between adults with low and higher levels of skills. The country has one of the largest participation gaps between these groups among OECD countries, exceeded only by Chile, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands (OECD, 2019[7]). Analysing participation rates of adults by different qualification levels results in a similar picture.

While employment rates of adults with low skills have increased over the past decade in Germany thanks to economic growth, a tightening labour market and an expansion of non-standard work, this trajectory may not continue. In the short term, the economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis is likely to worsen the labour market chances of this group. In the medium to long term, digitalisation and automation will significantly change many of the jobs held by low-skilled adults, or displace some of them entirely. Occupations that require no or low levels of education have the highest risk of automation, according to OECD analysis (Nedelkoska and Quintini, 2018[5]).

CET opportunities for low-skilled adults in Germany are typically lengthy learning opportunities leading to full formal degrees. Many of them continue to be delivered in a classroom setting. Opportunities to flexibly acquire full qualifications through successive partial qualifications are limited and not streamlined throughout the German territory. According to a 2018 study, the regional social and economic context, as well as existing infrastructure, explain one-third of the variation in CET participation of low-qualified groups in Germany (DIE and Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2018[38]).

Adults with low skills face multiple, multi-layered and interconnected barriers to participation. These include dispositional, situational and institutional barriers (Cross, 1992[39]; Pennacchia, Jones and Aldridge, 2018[40]; Roosmaa and Saar, 2017[41]). Dispositional barriers relate to attitudes, personality traits, perceptions and expectations around learning. Data from the German Institute for Employment Research (IAB) show that many adults with low skills believe that they are sufficiently qualified and that learning will not pay off economically (Osiander and Stephan, 2018[42]). Situational barriers relate mostly to the personal and family situation of adults with low skills. According to PIAAC data, adults with low basic skills are disproportionately female, older (55-64 years old), low-income, and from a migrant background; all characteristics that can have an impact on their ability to train. They are also more often employed in jobs and workplaces that offer only limited opportunities for upskilling and reskilling. Institutional barriers relate to the availability, or lack thereof, of appropriate learning opportunities for adults with low skills.

As adults with low skills are often not actively searching for learning opportunities, they cannot be reached by existing advice and guidance services. What is more, public awareness campaigns may not be effective for this target group, as many of the intended recipients don’t consider themselves in need of training (OECD, 2019[43]). Reaching out to this group more actively and in their regular environment, that is, their workplaces and communities, is key for engagement. Good international practice include the UK’s Unionlearn Programme, a long-standing initiative to improve learning opportunities for, and the employability of, employees. Run by the UK Trade Union Centre, evaluations have demonstrated its high return on investment and tangible benefits for employers, unions and learners, especially adults with low skills, older workers and people with an ethnic minority background (Dean et al., 2020[44]; Stuart et al., 2016[45]). Similar approaches are being trialled by social partners in Germany.

More detailed information on the assessment and recommendations relating to engaging low-skilled adults in training can be found in Chapter 6. Recommendations developed in other chapters are also particularly relevant for this target group. This includes recommendations on guidance, validation and partial qualifications (Chapter 4) and on financial incentives (Chapter 5).


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← 1. Eurostat, Adult Education Survey 2016, indicator: trng_aes_100.

← 2. Germany may be catching up with these countries, but only the next round of international data collection can confirm this. Data collection for the Adult Education Survey (AES) and the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) is due to take place in 2022/2023.

← 3. PIAAC data used in the PAL dashboard was collected in 2012 and 2015. However, newer AES data from 2018 confirms that participation gaps remain stark in Germany (BMBF, 2019[6]).

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