Chapter 4. Developing relevant skills over the life course

This chapter presents the portion of the OECD Skills Strategy Dashboard that pertains to developing relevant skills over the life course. It explores five policy priorities for improving performance in developing relevant skills: 1) raising aspirations for lifelong learning; 2) providing a good start for lifelong learning; 3) making lifelong learning affordable and sustainable; 4) making lifelong learning visible and rewarding; and 5) making lifelong learning accessible and relevant.


The statistical data for Israel are supplied by and under the responsibility of the relevant Israeli authorities. The use of such data by the OECD is without prejudice to the status of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the terms of international law.




Box 4.1. Key policy lessons on developing relevant skills over the life course

Raising aspirations for lifelong learning: National visions and strategies can promote awareness of the benefits of lifelong learning and guide the development of coherent and co-ordinated policies to support lifelong learning. Comprehensive and user-friendly information on the potential benefits of learning, current and expected skills needs, and available learning opportunities can help raise aspirations to learn and steer learning decisions over the life course.

Providing a good start for lifelong learning: The early years set the foundation for lifelong learning. Removing financial and other barriers to early childhood education and care (ECEC), and ensuring its high quality is essential to encourage participation. Family support programmes, visits and financial subsidies can help ensure that children, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, get a positive start in learning. Compulsory education plays a critical role in developing foundational skills and positive attitudes toward learning. Countries should identify low-performing and/or disadvantaged students early, provide targeted support for them and their schools, maintain high expectations for each student, and train and retain experienced and highly qualified teachers. Finally, the post-compulsory education system can consolidate youth’s maturation into skilled, adult learners. This entails targeted support and guidance for at-risk and disadvantaged youth, high-quality, work-based learning opportunities, combined basic skills and practical training, and opportunities for “second-chance” learning.

Making lifelong learning affordable and sustainable: Adults and enterprises have a range of needs for and barriers to learning. Financial barriers are typically high for adults from a disadvantaged background, as well as smaller enterprises. Funding systems can make adult learning affordable for those who need it most, while also keeping public funding sustainable. This can be achieved by targeting funding to individuals (irrespective of their contract type or with whom they learn), especially those from a disadvantaged background. It can also be achieved by coupling financial incentives with other supports, including for small-sized enterprises.

Making lifelong learning visible and rewarding: Acquiring skills through life is most rewarding for individuals when they can be recognised. Countries can help make the skills visible by moving to a competency-based approach to formal qualifications, encouraging certification for non-formal education and training, recognising non-formal and informal learning in national qualifications frameworks, harnessing technology to certify skills, and pursuing international harmonisation of recognition and certification.

Making lifelong learning accessible and relevant: Boosting engagement in learning through life requires that learning opportunities are accessible and flexible to meet learners’ needs. This can be achieved by putting the needs of adults and employers at the centre of education and training design, tailoring programmes to learners’ specific needs and contexts, addressing gaps in adults’ foundational skills, harnessing technology to make learning more accessible and tailored, and responding to specific skills needs in the economy and society. Tertiary institutions too must get better at responding to the learning needs and barriers of adult learners.


Developing strong skills is an investment in countries’ economic prosperity, social cohesion and broader well-being. Across OECD Member countries, adults with higher levels of skills in literacy, numeracy and problem solving with computers enjoy higher rates of employment, higher earnings, report better health and are more engaged in civic life (OECD, 2016[1]; OECD, 2013[2]).

Megatrends – including advances in technology, globalisation and the expansion of global value chains, demographic change, migration, as well as climate change – are combining to make lifelong learning imperative (see Chapter 3, “The skills implications of megatrends”). The traditional approach of front-end loading skills development is increasingly untenable in a world of rapid technological, economic and societal changes. Learning over the life course is not only for the highly skilled; it is essential for all citizens, in order to become full and active participants in the economy and society.

Given the importance of skills for individual and societal well-being, creating more equitable opportunities and outcomes is also critical. As noted in Chapter 3 (see the section in Chapter 3, “The imperative of creating more equitable opportunities and outcomes”), unequal skills outcomes across population groups is a major source of inequality that can undermine social cohesion.

To improve the quality and efficiency of skills development, more can be done to better use new technologies to support learning. Chapter 3 (see the section, “The imperative of making better use of technology as a learning pathway”) argues that the lifelong learning imperative means skills systems must be designed to serve learners of all ages and socio-demographic backgrounds. Technological advances also present opportunities – as yet under-realised – to develop skills in a more inclusive manner and at less cost.

OECD Member countries show varying levels of performance in developing strong skills from youth to adulthood. They face many similar policy priorities and challenges and implement a range of policies and practices in response.

Assessing performance in developing relevant skills

Through its experience working with countries on national skills strategy projects, the OECD has identified a set of key indicators to assess the overall performance of countries in developing relevant skills and using skills effectively. These are presented in the OECD Skills Strategy Dashboard. This dashboard allows countries to make a preliminary assessment of the comparative strengths and weaknesses of their skills systems and facilitates analysis of potential trade-offs or synergies in skills policies.

Indicators of developing relevant skills are presented in Table 4.1 (indicators on using skills effectively are presented in Chapter 5). The outcome indicators included in this dashboard were chosen to reflect the lifelong and life-wide perspectives of the OECD Skills Strategy, as well as to reflect the level, inclusiveness and trends in skills performance.

A key conclusion from Table 4.1 is that while performance in skills development at one stage in life tends to have important implications for performance at later stages, this relationship is not always straightforward. For most countries, each stage of the education and training system builds on the success of the previous one, but often countries fail to continue this cycle of continuous skills development throughout life.

Table 4.1. OECD Skills Strategy Dashboard: Developing relevant skills over the life course
Table 4.1. OECD Skills Strategy Dashboard: Developing relevant skills over the life course

1. For Belgium (Flanders), United Kingdom (England and Northern Ireland), a combination of regional (PISA and PIAAC on the level of Flanders, England and Northern Ireland) and national data have been used depending on the source.

Note: The Skills Strategy Dashboard has a focus on outputs of the skills system. A list of relevant indicators has been selected and aggregated and normalised in such a way that a higher value and being among the “Top 20%” reflects better performance. Colours in the dashboard represent the quintile position of the country in the ranking. The "x" indicates insufficient or no available data for the underlying indicators, and dotted circles indicate missing data for at least one underlying indicator. Data was not available for all aggregate indicators for all countries, particularly due to absence in the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). An explanation of the underlying indicators is provided in the Annex A.

Countries whose youth and students develop strong skills typically also have highly skilled adult populations

Early success in skills development matters for success in skills development in later stages of life. The majority of countries with strong average skills outcomes in compulsory education (top 40% or better in the PISA survey) also see strong average skills outcomes among their adults (top 40% or better in PIAAC) (Figure 4.1), with Finland and Japan as the best examples of top-performance in skills development of both youth and adults. However, the reverse is also true: the comparatively poor average performance of youth (bottom 40% or worse) in countries such as Chile, Greece, Israel, Italy, Spain, Turkey and the United States are met by poor average outcomes for adults (bottom 40% or worse).

Figure 4.1. Relative performance in skills development for youth and adults
Figure 4.1. Relative performance in skills development for youth and adults

Note: The figure is based on indicators from the OECD Skills Strategy Dashboard, using normalised scores of the following aggregated indicators: “How skilled are youth?”, based on PISA scores 2015, and “How strong are the foundational skills of adults?”, based on PIAAC scores.

Source: OECD (2016[3]), PISA 2015 Results (Volume I): Excellence and Equity in Education,; OECD calculations based on (2018[4]), Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) (database), 2012/2015,


Comparable patterns can also be found for performance in tertiary education – countries with highly skilled students generally also have highly skilled adult populations. However, it is important to note that high attainment rates in tertiary education are not a guarantee of strong average skills performance. In a number of countries with high tertiary attainment rates among young adults – including Canada, England (United Kingdom), Ireland, Israel and Korea – recent graduates have comparatively low average skill levels. This underscores the importance of ensuring that policies to improve access to tertiary education are complemented by policies to strengthen the quality of tertiary education.

Overall, looking at average country performance, each stage of the education and training system generally builds on the success of the previous one, which shows the importance of the early years for strong skills development through life (see the section below, “Providing a good start for lifelong learning: Building a strong foundation in early learning and formal education”).

Performance at one stage of life does not perfectly predict performance in another – some countries improve, while others fail to capitalise on early successes

Several countries experience uneven skills development performance over the life course. For instance, in the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic and Sweden, adults’ skills are strong compared to youth’s skills, and conversely, in Ireland, Korea, Poland and Slovenia, the skills of adults are weak compared to those of youth.

Differences in performance among age groups at a given point in time can be explained by a variety of factors. These include a change in educational attainment and the quality of compulsory education over time, as exemplified by diverging trends in PISA in recent years, e.g. the Czech Republic, Slovak Republic and Sweden show a negative trend, while Ireland, Poland and Slovenia show a positive trend. Other factors include changes in tertiary education attainment and in the quality of tertiary education, the effect of skills atrophy over time, and changes in the accessibility and quality of adult education and training. While the combination of these factors make a direct comparison of performance in different stages difficult, the uneven skills development performance over the life course highlights the need for broad policy action at all stages of the life course (see the section below, “Raising aspirations for lifelong learning: Setting the vision and supporting informed learning choices”).

A strong culture of adult education can be developed in all countries regardless of the skills of their populations

Some countries with below average performance in the skills development of youth and adults appear to have a strong culture of adult education, defined here as having a high rate of engagement and reported interest in learning in adulthood, as well as having relatively low barriers to learning in adulthood. This pattern is most notable in the United States – the average skills outcomes for youth, tertiary graduates and adults are relatively low, but participation and willingness to participate in adult education is relatively high, with low barriers to participation. A similar pattern can be found in Chile and Israel, albeit to a lesser extent. While the strong culture of adult education in these countries is a clear positive achievement, the low skill levels of the population do raise questions about the effectiveness and relevance of adult education and about whether poor performance in skills development in earlier years necessitates greater engagement in learning in later years.

Countries whose adults already have high skill levels should not be complacent and should continue to invest in adults’ skills. Technology continues to transform or abolish jobs and create new ones, while also transforming how people live and interact. Even highly skilled adults cannot rely on their current skills being sufficient for the future needs of the economy and society. Adult education and training can help individuals to upskill and reskill over time, to ensure their skills remain relevant in an ever-changing world. It is important even for countries with highly skilled populations to continue enacting policies that promote lifelong learning and raise participation and motivation (see the sections below, “Making lifelong learning affordable and sustainable: Strengthening financing arrangements for adult learning” and “Making lifelong learning visible and rewarding: Strengthening systems of skills validation and certification”).

There is no trade-off between excellence and equity

Many countries with strong average foundational skills among their youth, tertiary graduates and adults also manage to ensure the inclusiveness of their performance in skills development (Figure 4.2). For instance, populations in Scandinavian countries, Belgium (Flanders), Canada, Estonia, Japan, the Netherlands and New Zealand, are relatively highly skilled and the socio-economic background and parents’ education level only have a small effect on skills outcomes. Conversely, countries with the lowest equity performance are also those with the lowest average level of skills proficiency among adults. Chile, Israel, Italy, Poland, the Slovak Republic, Turkey and the United States score below average in almost all indicators related to skills levels and inclusiveness. Still, some countries are characterised by only average levels of equity in skills outcomes despite having high average levels of skills among adults. In Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany, for instance, foundational skills of the population are above average, but the effect of the parents’ education level on skills is comparatively large.

These findings underscore that with the right bundle of policies, excellence and equity can go hand in hand. But in various countries, targeted policies are needed to help bolster the skills of disadvantaged individuals, for instance by improving accessibility and relevance of lifelong learning (see the section below, “Making lifelong learning accessible and relevant: Responding to the needs of individuals and employers”).

Figure 4.2. Performance and equity in skills development
Figure 4.2. Performance and equity in skills development

Note: The figure is based on indicators from the OECD Skills Strategy Dashboard. Performance in skills development is defined as the average of the normalised scores of aggregates “How skilled are youth” (based on PISA scores 2015), “How skilled are young tertiary-educated adults” and “How strong are foundational skills of adults” (both based on PIAAC scores). For the equity in skills development, the indicator is based on the aggregates “Are skills of youth being developed inclusively” (PISA ESCS parity index), “How inclusive is tertiary education”, and “Are skills of adults being developed inclusively” (tertiary attainment and skills respectively by education level parents, PIAAC).

Source: OECD (2016[3]), PISA 2015 Results (Volume I): Excellence and Equity in Education,; OECD calculations based on OECD (2018[4]), Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) (database), 2012/2015,


Raising aspirations for lifelong learning: Setting the vision and supporting informed learning choices

The transformation of economies and societies has led many governments to focus greater attention on skills development throughout life as a key to prosperity and well-being. Many countries aspire to build a culture of lifelong learning, which as noted earlier can be broadly understood as a high level of interest and engagement in learning and training in various forms by all citizens, regardless of their age, educational experience or socio-economic background.

Through the establishment of universal compulsory schooling, governments have built the foundations for such culture: a large part of the population in OECD Member countries view the completion of formal education, at secondary, and increasingly at tertiary level, as a key investment for economic success and social well-being. For example, the share of tertiary-educated adults aged 25-34 increased substantially over recent decades, from 26% of the population in 2000 to 43% in 2016 on average in OECD Member countries.

However, after leaving the formal education system, many adults do not actively continue learning. As a consequence, the skills acquired become obsolete over time. Across all countries and regardless of the type of learning considered, adult learners tend to be highly educated, highly skilled and young. While the wealth of online learning opportunities that has emerged in the past two decades was expected to increase access to learning for all, to date opportunities such as massive open online courses (MOOCs) are taken up by only a small portion of adults who are already well-educated (OECD, 2019[5]). By contrast, low-skilled adults report the lowest rates of interest and participation in learning. Current adult-learning patterns thus reinforce previous educational inequalities but also risk worsening economic inequality as low-skilled adults are those most at risk of experiencing labour market disruptions such as those resulting from offshoring and automation.

The challenge: Uneven participation in learning

Developing a strong lifelong learning culture involves high levels of engagement in learning over the life course and across the entire population. Only a few countries perform well on indicators that measure the equity of opportunities in learning over the life course, including Estonia, Japan and the Netherlands (OECD, 2017[6]). However, the diversity of these countries and of their education systems suggest that different strategies can help achieve good learning outcomes for all.

Expanding non-compulsory learning, in early childhood and adulthood, is challenging. There has been some progress, however, with enrolment in early childhood education rising: participation rates for children under the age of 3 increased by over 8 percentage points between 2005 and 2014, from 26% to 34% on average across OECD Member countries. There remain significant variations among countries, and in many cases, socio-economic background continues to have a strong influence on participation (OECD, 2018[7]; OECD, 2017[8]).

At the other end of the spectrum, there has been a rise in adult-learning participation over time, for instance, in 2007, 35.2% of adults in European countries reported having participated in at least one learning activity in the past 12 months, a figure which rose to 45.1% in 2016. But large gaps remain across countries: the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries have rates that exceed 60%, while in some countries this rate is below 30% (OECD, 2018[9]). Adult learning involves a diversity of activities, identified in Box 4.2.

Box 4.2. Definitions: Lifelong learning and adult learning

Lifelong learning is understood as encompassing all learning activity “from the cradle to the grave”, including all stages of education and training and taking place both in the formal education system and outside of it.

Adult learning encompasses any education or training activity undertaken by adults for job-related or other purposes, and include:

  • Formal education or training: Education or training activity that leads to a formal qualification (at primary, secondary, post-secondary or tertiary level).

  • Non-formal education or training: Education or training activity that does not necessarily lead to a formal qualification, such as on-the-job training, open or distance education, courses or private lessons, seminars or workshops.

  • Informal learning: Learning that results from daily activities related to work, family or leisure. It is not organised or structured in terms of objectives, time or learning support. It is in most cases unintentional from the learner’s perspective.

Source: OECD (2001[10]), Education Policy Analysis 2001,; Werquin, P. (2010[11]), Recognising Non-Formal and Informal Learning: Outcomes, Policies and Practices,; OECD (2019[5]), OECD Skills Outlook 2019: Skills and Digitalisation; OECD (2019[12]) Getting Skills Right: Future-ready Adult Learning Systems,

The propensity for the most educated, those in employment and in larger firms to participate the most in lifelong learning is widespread (OECD, 2018[9]; CEDEFOP, 2015[13]). As shown in Figure 4.3, in Greece, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia, the ratio between the highly-educated and low-educated adults who report having participated in learning exceeds 4:1. This means that for each low-educated adult participating in a learning activity, there are at least four highly-educated adults who participate. This gap exists both in countries with low overall participation, but also in countries with relatively high participation rates. By contrast, the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands (OECD, 2017[14]) enjoy high participation rates, with smaller gaps between high- and low-educated.

On-the-job training can be one way to reach many adults, yet employer-sponsored training remains limited, concentrated in large firms, and most commonly available to highly skilled employees. Significant differences exist between countries, with Greece, Hungary and Poland continuing to lag behind with fewer than one out of two enterprises providing training in 2015. In Latvia, Norway, Sweden and the Czech Republic, this rate exceeds 90%.

Figure 4.3. Participation in lifelong learning and share of enterprises providing training
Figure 4.3. Participation in lifelong learning and share of enterprises providing training

Source: OECD (2018[4]), Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) (database), 2012/2015,; Eurostat (2018[15]), Continuing Vocational Training Survey (CVTS) (database),


Adults face many barriers that limit their engagement in learning. These include direct and indirect costs, time constraints and a lack of relevant learning options. However, the main obstacle, particularly among adults with low skills, remains low motivation. About 75% of adults who took part in PIAAC say they are not interested in learning (OECD, 2013[2]). For employers, the balance between the costs of training and expected benefits, which depend on multiple factors including the time needed for productivity to increase and the ability to retain skilled workers, is at the core of training decisions (Bishop, 1996[16]; Mühlemann, 2016[17]).

Good practices

Countries with a strong culture of lifelong learning tend to have a shared understanding across society of the broad benefits of skills and learning for work and life. They also have mechanisms that encourage learning in multiple forms within and outside of the formal education system (OECD, 2019[5]). A first step to improve a country’s culture of lifelong learning is to make the benefits of skills and learning more transparent.

Setting the national vision for skills and lifelong learning

National visioning exercises and strategies can help promote the benefits of skills and lifelong learning. They provide an opportunity to articulate and raise awareness of the benefits of skills and learning amongst a wide range of policy makers and stakeholders. Involving different ministries, sub-national government and stakeholders in the process of developing a national vision for skills and lifelong learning can also help raise awareness of the benefits of skills and lifelong learning. In Norway, the Norwegian Strategy for Skills Policy 2017-2021 describes the population’s skills as society’s most important resource and the basis for welfare, growth, wealth creation and sustainability (Box 4.3).

Box 4.3. Country practices: Setting the national vision for skills and lifelong learning

In 2017, Norway adopted the Norwegian Strategy for Skills Policy 2017-2021. This followed up on the recommendations of the 2012-14 OECD Skills Strategy Project, which advised Norway to develop a skills strategy incorporating a whole-of-government approach and strong stakeholder involvement.

The Norwegian strategy is a binding agreement among the Strategy partners, namely the government, employer associations, trade unions, the voluntary sector and the Sami Parliament. This strategy delineates the roles and responsibilities of each partner. For example, the government (ministries), in co-operation with social partners, is responsible for the development and implementation of the skills policy, and for ensuring co-ordination across policy sectors and levels of government. Municipalities, including local and regional authorities, are the school owners and provide numerous services to the end user. Employers provide training at the workplace, often in collaboration with other partners. The Sami Parliament ensures that the authorities enable the Sami people to have the necessary linguistic and cultural expertise to develop Sami society and businesses. The voluntary sector contributes to skills development both within and outside the labour market.

The Norwegian strategy is overseen by the Skills Policy Council and includes a Future Skills Needs Committee. The council consists of representatives of all the Strategy partners and is in charge of the follow-up of the strategy. They meet regularly during the strategy period and discuss feedback from the Future Skills Needs Committee, as well as other relevant issues. The council is responsible for assessing the strategy in the second year and will decide whether it should be renewed.

Source: OECD/ELS (2018[18]), “Policy Questionnaire: Readiness of Adult Learning Systems to Address Changing Skills Needs”, internal document; Government of Norway (2017[19]), Norwegian Strategy for Skills Policy

Skills assessment and anticipation

Individuals and firms alike need information on the skills that are available or lacking in the labour market to make decisions about which skills to develop. Governments need this information to design relevant education and training policies and programmes. Many OECD Member countries have responded to this need by developing skills assessment and anticipation (SAA) systems which, to varying degrees, aim to identify the types of occupations, qualifications and fields of study in demand in the labour market, or that may become so in the future. These systems vary greatly across countries, according to the definition of skills, the methods used, as well as the geographical coverage, timespan and frequency of the assessments.

Promising practices exist in a number of countries to strengthen the quality and credibility of these exercises and expand their use. Using both quantitative and qualitative methods, as well as both short- to medium-term and longer-term assessments allows for robust analysis and a diversity of uses. Australia, Belgium (Flanders), Italy and Korea are among the few countries that systematically combine quantitative and qualitative data sources in the same SAA exercise. Denmark’s Rational Economic Agent Model (DREAM) can be used to simulate and forecast national education levels 50 or more years into the future. In Germany, the BIBB-IAB-Qualification and Occupational Fields Projections work on a 30-year projection capability, forecasting both occupations and qualifications using qualitative and quantitative data (OECD, 2017[20]). The OECD Skills for Jobs database (2018[21]) also provides timely information about countries’ skills shortages and surpluses for a wide range of skills, including cognitive skills, social skills, physical skills and a set of knowledge types.

Involving multiple ministries can also enhance the policy uses of SAA exercises. Education and labour authorities both participate in the development of forecasts in Norway while in Portugal a government agency under the joint oversight of the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Economy is responsible for managing the recently created SAA system (OECD, 2018[22]).

Another approach to improve both the quality and usefulness of SAA exercises is to establish structures to regularly engage stakeholders. In Australia, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Portugal, the Slovak Republic and the United Kingdom, there are dedicated councils and committees that involve both employers and trade unions in the development of SAA information.

Several countries take a multi-method, cross-sectoral approach to improving information on skills needs (Box 4.4).

Box 4.4. Country practices: Improving information on skills needs

Norway’s Committee on Skills Needs was formed in response to the need for an evidence-based understanding of Norway’s future skills needs. This committee plays a key role in co-ordinating between different ministries and stakeholder bodies in the area of skills needs assessment and responses. The committee is funded by the Ministry of Education and Research, and its secretariat is within Skills Norway. The committee includes 18 members representing social partners, ministries, and researchers. It is tasked with compiling evidence on Norway’s future skills needs, contributing to open discussions and better utilisation of resources between stakeholders, and producing an annual report with analyses and assessment of Norway’s future skills needs. Unusually, these skills needs are forecast on the national, regional and sectoral level.

The Committee on Skills Needs uses a comprehensive set of methods and tools, including employer surveys, surveys of workers or graduates, quantitative forecasting models, sector studies, qualitative methods, and labour market information systems. It also focuses on how to use the projections: Norway forecasts skills needs 10 to 80 years into the future in the health sector and 35 years in advance in the teaching sector. It also carries out 20-year general occupational forecasts. It estimates the education resources required one year in advance and also estimates employment trends in specific industries one year in advance as a direct input for planning training and employment policy.

Portugal’s skills needs assessment system is the Sistema de Anticipação de Necessidades de Qualificações, or SANQ, created in 2014. The SANQ is co-ordinated by the National Agency for Qualifications and Vocational Education and Training and includes a consultative board that includes the Public Employment Service, representatives of workers and employers, and also involves technical assistance from the International Labour Organization (ILO). Its diagnostic exercises assess skills needs through both a retrospective analysis of labour market trends and a forecast of the demand for certain qualifications. The system is used to plan the delivery of vocational education and training for youth, and the country is considering expanding the use for planning the supply of adult-learning programmes. Portugal is also following OECD guidelines on the application of skills needs data to the field of career guidance by utilising inputs of skills needs assessment to assist with guidance in its network of Qualifica Centres, formerly Centres for Qualification and Vocational Education, which aim to guide young people and adults in identifying opportunities to acquire qualifications as part of the National Catalogue of Qualifications.

Source: OECD (2016[23]), Getting Skills Right: Assessing and Anticipating Changing Skill Needs,; OECD (2018[22]), Skills Strategy Implementation Guidance for Portugal: Strengthening the Adult-Learning System,; Norwegian Committee on Skills Needs (2018[24]), Mandate of Official Norwegian Committee on Skill Needs,

High-quality information on skills levels, and the benefits of skills and learning opportunities

Investing in skills delivers many benefits for individuals, firms and societies. For instance, benefits for individuals include better employment opportunities and higher earnings, as well as better job satisfaction, better health and increased propensity to participate in civic life. For employers, benefits may include increased productivity or improved innovation. For societies, the benefits range from having competitive and innovative workforces and greater tax revenues to more engaged and informed citizens and lower reliance on the public safety net.

The diversity of these benefits and the complexity involved in measuring them is challenging. However, there is value in better understanding these “returns to skills” independently of specific occupations and qualifications where they are used or developed, for several reasons. First, education levels do not perfectly reflect skill levels, and graduates with the same qualification can have vastly different levels of skills, with differences both within and between countries. In Italy and Japan, for example, many low-educated adults have literacy proficiency levels on par with medium- and even highly-educated adults (Figure 4.4) (OECD, 2018[25]). Furthermore, digital technologies offer many new opportunities for individuals to develop and demonstrate their skills apart from formal qualifications (Lehdonvirta et al., 2018[26]) (see the section below, “Making lifelong learning visible and rewarding: Strengthening systems of skills validation and certification”).

Figure 4.4. Distribution of literacy proficiency scores and education in Italy and Japan
Mean literacy proficiency and distribution of literacy scores, by educational attainment
Figure 4.4. Distribution of literacy proficiency scores and education in Italy and Japan

Source: Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) (2012) in OECD (2013[2]), OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills,


Measuring the benefits of skills and skills bundles of various types, including social and emotional skills, can help signal skills in demand in the labour market. While occupations are an imperfect proxy to assess the skills people will need in the future, as many jobs of the future do not yet exist, more is known about what people are increasingly required to do at work – their tasks – and thus about the skills required in the workplace. For instance, workers in digital workplaces more frequently use skills such as management and communication, accounting and marketing and advanced numeracy, than in non-digital work environments (OECD, 2019[5]). Recent OECD evidence on the digitalisation and globalisation of the economy suggests that strong bundles of cognitive, non-cognitive and social and emotional skills are key for individuals and countries to be resilient and adaptable in the longer term (OECD, 2017[27]; 2017[28]; 2019[5]).

A first step to understanding the benefits of skills is to assess people’s skills levels. International skills assessments, such as PISA and PIAAC, offer useful tools to assess skill levels and the benefits of skills. The OECD’s Education and Skills Online assessment tool provides individual-level results that are comparable with national and international PIAAC results. It measures literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments, contains non-cognitive measures of skill use, career interest, health and well-being, and will soon measure behavioural competencies. For example, the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) completed two large-scale trials at 20 universities and colleges to measure literacy, numeracy and critical-thinking skills among entering and graduating students (see Box 4.9 later in this chapter).

Some countries have developed their own tools as well: in the United States, the Collegiate Learning Assessment (“CLA+”) aims to measure the performance of higher education students in analysis and problem solving, scientific and quantitative reasoning, writing, critical reading and evaluation. The test has been expanded to include a version for school students and for international use (Council for Aid to Education, 2018[29]). In Canada, efforts have focused on assessing the skills needs of employers to develop a “Test of Workplace Essential Skills” allowing individuals to assess their performance on skills broadly needed by employers (Government of Canada, 2018[30]). The European Commission has also developed a Digital Competence Framework, used by several countries to develop tests of digital competence, and produces an annual assessment of digital skills in EU countries as part of the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI). This index summarises 30 indicators on digital performance across the dimensions of connectivity, human capital, use of the Internet, integration of digital technology, and digital public services. Large firms have also developed their own assessments, as discussed later in this chapter.

Making the benefits of learning programmes more transparent is a challenge that countries must tackle if they are to increase interest and investments in learning from individuals and firms.

Much information is available on the returns to formal education, which is strongly linked to improved economic and social outcomes (OECD, 2017[31]). In the area of non-formal learning, a recent study by the OECD (Fialho, Quintini and Vandeweyer, forthcoming[32]) shows that job-related training is associated with an 11% rise in hourly wages. This is in line with a rich body of literature showing that non-formal learning can have positive effects on employability, earnings and firm productivity, as well as on various social outcomes such as personal health, self-confidence and community well-being (OECD, 2005[33]; Card, Kluve and Weber, 2015[34]; Adhvaryu, Kala and Nyshadham, 2018[35]; Merriam and Kee, 2014[36]). On the other hand, while informal learning is likely one of the most prevalent modes of learning in adulthood, there is little evidence of how it affects outcomes. The same study by the OECD estimates that informal learning is associated with a 3% increase in hourly wages (Fialho, Quintini and Vandeweyer, forthcoming[32]).

However, many factors affect the returns to adult learning, making it difficult to generalise these returns to specific learning programmes and provide guidance to prospective learners. These factors range from participants’ backgrounds (including their previous skill level and time left in the labour market), the quality of training, the working environment (career prospects, skills use opportunities) and wage flexibility more generally.

Systematic monitoring of outcomes and effective evaluation of learning programmes are thus critical tools for countries to strengthen the quality of their learning systems and in turn promote a culture of learning. Various tools can be considered: impact evaluations with experimental designs, and measuring the value added of programmes by assessing skills levels before and after completion are examples of possible approaches, through the use of skills profiling and assessment tools. To improve trust in the value of adult learning, employers and formal learning providers need to recognise the skills acquired through non-formal learning. This makes good systems of skills recognition and validation essential, as discussed later.

Equally important is the need to effectively communicate the benefits individuals and firms can expect from lifelong learning. Governments can facilitate this process by disseminating information on the outcomes of learning programmes. For example, for two decades, the government of Ontario (Canada) has required publicly funded community colleges to make key performance indicators, such as employment rates, student, graduates, and employer satisfaction rates with graduates, available annually (Colleges Ontario, 2018[37]). Governments can also make greater use of new technologies to share information on the impact of learning: since 2017, France’s Public Employment Service has been piloting a system of user ratings for professional training in sectors where there are tens of thousands of providers (Pôle Emploi, 2018[38]).

Promoting learning among the low-skilled requires targeted support, both financial and non-financial. Governments can leverage insights from behavioural economics to better design the type of information they provide, as well as the timing and manner in which information is shared.

Several countries have programmes underway to raise awareness of the benefits of and opportunities for learning (Box 4.5).

Box 4.5. Country practices: Raising awareness of learning benefits and opportunities

In Slovenia, Lifelong Learning Week, an annual campaign organised and co-ordinated by the Slovenian Institute for Adult Education (ACS), has helped develop a culture of lifelong learning in the country. It promotes learning opportunities via various programmes and providers, guidance services, and social and cultural events at the national and local levels.

The week commences with a grand opening and the ACS’s annual adult-learning awards and involves an adult-learning conference, Learning Parades in selected towns, and a range of other events. The campaign seeks to build positive attitudes towards learning and education, and awareness of adult learning’s importance and pervasiveness. Lifelong Learning Week has expanded significantly over the last two decades. In 2016, almost 9 000 events were organised throughout the country, bringing together nearly 1 800 providers and 150 000 visitors.

In Poland, the Database of Development Services (Baza Usług Rozwojowych) is a nation-wide, free online information platform that provides information on education and training offers (including vocational courses, counselling, postgraduate studies, mentoring or coaching), helping individuals and employers to find courses suited to their needs and make informed adult-learning decisions.

The database, administrated by the Polish Agency for Enterprise Development (PARP), contains detailed information on available training programmes and their providers, distinguishing between services that can be subsidised from the European Social Fund (ESF), and funded through private funds. It also provides quality information, such as user (both participant and employer) satisfaction. Training providers registered in the database are always verified by the PARP, based on their capacity to provide high-quality educational services.

Since its launch in 2017, the database has registered over 3 800 education and training providers offering over 212 500 services, among which 80% can be subsidised from the ESF.

In the United States, behavioural techniques are used to provide assistance and financial aid information. Research using behavioural economics measured the effect of different approaches to encourage individuals from low-income families to apply for financial aid to pursue higher education. A randomised field experiment model was used to see whether providing direct assistance in completing application forms for financial aid for higher education and/or information on the potential aid that would be available compared to the costs of tuition at local colleges would lead more individuals to apply for financial aid and then to higher education. The full treatment included both direct assistance on completing the process to apply for financial aid, provided by a tax professional during a meeting regarding tax matters, as well as information on the estimated aid individuals would receive compared to tuition at a local college. The full treatment had a significant impact, with student enrolment in higher education rising from 34% to 42% in the year after the experiment for those whose parents received the help, whereas providing only information but no assistance had no impact.

Source: Adapted from OECD (2018[39]), Skills Strategy Implementation Guidance for Slovenia: Improving the Governance of Adult Learning,; ACS (2017[40]) “Identity Card of TVU”,; Bettinger, Eric P. et al. (2012[41]), “The Role of Application Assistance and Information in College Decisions: Results from the H&R Block FAFSA Experiment”,; PARP (2018[42]), Database of Development Services,, information provided by PARP (3 December 2018).

Policy recommendations for raising aspirations for lifelong learning

In light of the findings and practices above, the following policy recommendations can help countries raise aspirations for lifelong learning (Box 4.6).

Box 4.6. Policy recommendations: Raising aspirations for lifelong learning
  • Develop a national vision that promotes the benefits of skills and lifelong learning. This could take the form of a national skills strategy or a strategy on lifelong learning. National strategies can articulate the need for and benefits of lifelong learning. They can also establish the promotion of these benefits as a national priority and prescribe appropriate measures, such as outreach and campaigns. Involving a wide range of ministries and stakeholders in the development of such a vision also helps raise awareness amongst key actors.

  • Strengthen skills assessment and anticipation systems. Enhancing the methods used (e.g. quantitative and qualitative information, short- and longer-term projections, national/local levels) and engaging stakeholders can improve the relevance and use of skills assessment and anticipation information. Key uses should include supporting policy (e.g. education, employment, and migration), career guidance and decision making by prospective learners and employers.

  • Understand and communicate the benefits of participating in lifelong learning. Improved data collection on the benefits of lifelong learning is essential to raise interest in learning and identify the types of programmes that work best. Information on the benefits of learning programmes should be developed based on sound methodology, encompass a broad set of relevant outcomes, and be communicated to users in a clear and user-friendly manner.

  • Provide comprehensive and user-friendly information on learning opportunities. Individuals who are considering learning require information on what learning opportunities are available. This requires high-quality, centralised online information and effective guidance services, and is best complemented with information on the potential benefits of these opportunities.

Providing a good start for lifelong learning: Building a strong foundation in early learning and formal education

Lifelong learning starts early. Learning is a natural human activity, which knows no age boundaries and spans the entire life course. But learning is also a skill that individuals need to acquire. Becoming an effective lifelong learner begins in childhood and is heavily influenced by the institutional arrangements that provide opportunities to learn.

While far from being an automatic and cumulative process, learning at every stage of the lifecycle builds on learning outcomes and experiences from previous stages. Thus, it is important to build strong foundations in early stages on which a lifetime of learning can flourish. This section discusses the ways through which the early stages of learning and school education can enable or hinder the building of the foundations for skills development over the life course.

The skills that are needed to become an effective lifelong learner are manifold. First, a strong basis of cognitive development and cognitive foundation skills is needed. Language development, literacy, numeracy, problem-solving skills that can be mobilised to tackle a variety of challenges, all these constitute the foundation on which a life of learning can be built. Second, well-developed, non-cognitive skills are needed. Social skills that enable an individual to effectively interact with others and learn from them, but also emotional skills and personality traits such as conscientiousness and openness create a favourable disposition to later learning. Meta-cognitive skills – or “learning-to-learn” skills – enable an individual to steer his or her own learning trajectory, to learn from mistakes, to become goal-oriented in learning endeavours, and to experience satisfaction and pride in learning.

The challenge: The enduring impact of social and family background

Learners do not start their educational journeys as blank sheets of paper. By virtue of the situations and environments they are born into, these journeys are to some extent influenced and determined. Countries, regions, communities and families differ to a large extent in how much they value and support learning. As a result, the opportunities to acquire the skills and attitudes necessary to become a lifelong learner are unequally distributed.

Inequality in income and wealth, but also in social and cultural capital, can limit the opportunities for those in the lower levels of the income and wealth distribution to move up the economic and social ladder. Those who start at a disadvantage are less likely to have access to a high-quality learning environment and to receive support for developing the capacity to climb the socio-economic ladder as they grow up. As a result, educational and skills gaps between individuals of different socio-economic status (SES) can exacerbate income and wealth inequality, perpetuating the vicious cycle from one generation to the next.

Parental educational attainment is, next to wealth or cultural resources at home, one of the main measures used to assess the importance of the family background on individuals’ learning opportunities. Like any other measure, it has its shortcomings, such as the fact that it is not stable over time and is influenced by the timing of educational expansion in a country. PIAAC revealed a substantial gap (a difference of 40 points) in literacy scores between adults with highly and poorly educated parents (Figure 4.5). Even after accounting for socio-demographic factors such as gender, age, foreign-born status and the number of years the respondent had been working for a current employer or had been self-employed, a gap in literacy skills remains in all countries participating in the survey (OECD, 2016[1]). The gaps are particularly high in the United States, Germany, Israel, Poland, Slovenia, Chile and France (OECD, 2016[1]). This suggests that adults with more educated parents have benefited from better learning opportunities and support than those whose parents who are not as well educated.

Figure 4.5. Gaps in literacy between adults with high-educated and low-educated parents
The difference in literacy proficiency between adults with at least one parent with tertiary education and adults without a parent who has attained an upper secondary education
Figure 4.5. Gaps in literacy between adults with high-educated and low-educated parents

Note: All differences are statistically significant. Unadjusted differences are the differences between the two means for each contrast category. Adjusted differences are based on a regression model and take account of differences associated with other factors, such as age, gender, education, immigrant and language background. Only the score-point differences between two contrast categories are shown, which is useful for showing the relative significance of parents’ educational attainment in relation to observed score-point differences. Upper secondary education includes ISCED 3A, 3B, 3C long and 4. Tertiary includes ISCED 5A, 5B and 6. The adjusted difference for the Russian Federation is missing due to the lack of language variables. The OECD average is based on the sample of OECD Member countries/regions assessed in the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC).

Source: OECD (2016[1]), Skills Matter: Further Results from the Survey of Adult Skills,


Good practices

Laying the foundations: The critical importance of high-quality early learning

Early childhood is a critical period. According to the economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman, “Early learning begets later learning and early success breeds later success, just as early failure breeds later failure” (Heckman and Carneiro, 2003[43]). Heckman analysed how human capital accumulates over time and how the returns to investment vary at different stages in life. Children with high levels of learning ability at an early age are more likely to augment their skills and benefit from better outcomes in the future (Heckman and Carneiro, 2003[43]; Cunha et al., 2006[44]).

Home learning environments have an important impact on children’s early childhood outcomes. In some families, this may pose a particular challenge. Lone-parent and low-income families with low levels of educational attainment tend to have limited resources, abilities and time to invest in early learning. Particularly in countries or communities that are still far from achieving universal enrolment in early childhood education and care (ECEC), countries need to develop interventions to improve the conditions for learning at home. Evidence-based parenting programmes, home visits for troubled families and subsidies to boost income can help these families improve the learning environments they provide for their children (Haskins and Margolis, 2014[45]). Home visits, community outreach and parenting training initiatives to foster greater social cohesion, community development and improved outcomes for children are also recommended (OECD, 2012[46]).

A growing body of research indeed confirms that ECEC improves children’s cognitive abilities, helps to create a foundation for lifelong learning, makes learning outcomes more equitable, reduces poverty, and improves social mobility from generation to generation. These benefits tend to be higher for young children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Since inequities in education opportunities and outcomes tend to grow when school is not compulsory, earlier entrance into the education system may help to give all students a better chance to succeed and, therefore, reduce educational inequities. As countries continue to expand their early childhood education and care programmes, it will be important to consider parents’ needs and expectations regarding accessibility, costs, programme quality and accountability.

The quality of ECEC is a crucial element in children’s learning outcomes and in the development of their socio-emotional skills; it also influences parents’ decisions whether to use such services. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are generally at higher risk of not being able to obtain quality ECEC services (OECD, 2016[47]; OECD, 2011[48]). Attracting high-quality ECEC teachers to impoverished areas is difficult and constructing and improving ECEC facilities can be challenging if funding is not forthcoming.

ECEC institutions and programmes are very different from one country to another, with strong variation in either the care or learning functions. Still, despite the variations, benefits for children’s skills development are undeniable. Two years of ECEC is the threshold duration required to significantly boost academic performance at age 15, according to 2015 PISA data. However, only around 66% of 15-year-olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds reported more than a year of experience in early childhood education, while 81% of their peers from the highest tranche of socio-economic backgrounds reported more than a year’s experience in pre-primary education on average across OECD Member countries (OECD, 2013[49]).

The price for missing out on learning opportunities in the early stages of life is high. On average in OECD Member countries, some 41% of students without pre-primary education perform below the baseline proficiency level (Level 2) in mathematics. In contrast, 30% of students with at least a year of pre-primary experience and 20% of students with more than one year of pre-primary education perform at the baseline level. In all countries except Albania, Estonia, Ireland and Latvia, having more than one year of pre-primary education had a statistically significant effect on each country’s share of low performers (OECD, 2016[47]). The gap is particularly large in OECD Member countries like Chile, France, Greece, Israel, Mexico, and the Slovak Republic. Even after controlling for other student characteristics such as socio-economic status, gender, immigrant background, language spoken at home, family structure, location of student’s school (rural area, town or city), grade repetition and programme orientation (vocational or general), the likelihood of low performance in mathematics for a student with no pre-primary education is almost double (1.9 times) that of a student who attended more than a year of pre-primary education (OECD, 2016[47]).

OECD Member countries have taken various measures to expand access and quality in early learning (Box 4.7).

Box 4.7. Country practices: Expanding access and quality in early learning

In Australia, the participation of 3-4 year-olds in pre-primary education (ISCED 02) is close to the OECD average. Participation rates at age 4 have risen dramatically since 2005, from 53% in 2005 to 85% in 2014, representing the fourth highest increase among OECD Member countries. To strengthen performance and support disadvantaged and indigenous populations, Australia has developed a number of strategies, including the National Partnership Agreement on Universal Access to Early Childhood Education, which aims to maintain universal access to quality early childhood education programmes for all children in the year before full-time school for 600 hours per year, delivered by a qualified early childhood teacher who meets National Quality Framework requirements.

In the Slovak Republic, enrolment in ECEC is comparatively low compared to the OECD average. Evidence shows that only 28% of Roma children were enrolled in pre-primary education in 2011, compared to about 70% for all children. In response, the Slovak Republic took action to improve access to ECEC, with a focus on expanding kindergarten capacity in high-demand areas, supporting the participation of disadvantaged children, and providing childcare in the workplace. The Strategy of the Slovak Republic for Roma Integration by 2020 also aims to improve the position of vulnerable Roma communities in the coming years. This support is financed from the state budget and EU structural funds. In 2015, municipalities with the highest demand for ECEC could apply for financial support to expand their pre-school capacity (total budget allocation of EUR 15 million from the state budget). In the first round, the Ministry of Education, Science, Research and Sport will support the creation of 3 600 new ECEC places in 113 municipalities. Due to the high number of applicants, the government intends to allocate additional resources to satisfy the remaining demand.

The European Union and the Slovak government are co-financing inclusive education in kindergartens in 82 municipalities to increase the participation in ECEC of disadvantaged children, including Roma children. Additional national projects, amongst others, focus on raising awareness of the importance of ECEC among Roma parents, developing and implementing an inclusive kindergarten curriculum, training ECEC teachers to work with Roma children and hiring teaching assistants.

Source: OECD (2017[8]), Starting Strong 2017: Key OECD Indicators on Early Childhood Education and Care,

Building a solid base: Compulsory schooling

If educational investments made during early childhood are to be productive, continued support throughout schooling is crucial. The years of compulsory schooling, when all students are required to attend schools, make it possible to reach and educate as many students as possible. Curriculum frameworks, of varying nature and level of detail, prescribe what students need to learn in terms of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values, including learning-to-learn skills and positive attitudes towards learning.

Compulsory schooling aspires to reach all age-specific students. Still, the situation of students who are not in school is a cause for concern, as they do not have access to the educational opportunities they need to acquire skills. Although enrolment in primary and secondary education is almost universal in most OECD Member countries, many countries around the world have much work to do to make education accessible to all (OECD, 2016[3]). According to data from the Institute of Statistics of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), in 2014 about 16% of youth of lower secondary school age across the world did not attend school. The latest PISA report (OECD, 2016[3]) also acknowledges the variation in school enrolment rates among the participating countries. In 20 countries participating in PISA 2015, fewer than 80% of 15-year-olds are enrolled in school and eligible to participate. Being out of school is not necessarily synonymous with being deprived of all possible sources of learning, but school education is essential for building skills for lifelong success.

The quality of learning in schools (“learning outcomes”) is as important as access to school education. The results of successive PISA rounds highlight large differences in learning outcomes. Also, learning outcomes are far from being distributed in an equitable way, but are strongly impacted by various sources of inequity, most importantly by social and family background. PISA results have consistently demonstrated significant performance gaps between students of different socio-economic backgrounds in most participating countries.

According to the latest PISA 2015 results, students’ socio-economic backgrounds have a varying degree of influence on their performance in science, reading and mathematics. In countries like Austria, Belgium, Chile, France, Germany, Singapore and Switzerland, socio-economic backgrounds exercise a particularly strong influence on students’ performance, since students from disadvantaged backgrounds in these countries are very likely to not perform as well in PISA assessments as their peers from advantaged backgrounds. On the other hand, in countries and territories like Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong (China), Japan, Korea, Macau (China) and the United Kingdom, the socio-economic background of students has a much weaker influence on their performance. Moreover, these are all countries where the quality of learning outcomes is relatively high, indicating that there is no unavoidable trade-off between excellence and equity of learning. The differing rates of progress in providing education and skills to disadvantaged learners suggest that education policies and educational institutions and actors play a central role in mitigating the gap between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged students and ensuring that all students have opportunities for high-quality learning. Some countries have taken steps to support the learning outcomes of immigrant and refugee students in particular.

The situation of low-performing students merits special attention because there is a high probability that low achievement at school limits the chance of becoming effective lifelong learners later in life. According to the latest PISA report (OECD, 2016[50]), 28%of students scored below the baseline level of proficiency in at least one of the three core subjects that PISA assesses (reading, mathematics and science). The share of low performers is greater in mathematics (23%) than in reading or science (18% in each) on average across OECD Member countries. In OECD Member countries, the performance of almost 4 million 15-year-old students in mathematics and almost 3 million 15-year-old students in reading and science is low. For the 64 countries and economies that participated in PISA 2015, the figures include 11.5 million 15-year-old students in mathematics, 8.5 million in reading, and 9 million in science who are low performers (OECD, 2016[47]).

Countries take a variety of approaches to ensure access and quality in compulsory schooling and provide a good start for lifelong learning (Box 4.8).

Box 4.8. Country practices: Ensuring access and quality in compulsory schooling

In Spain, early school leaving has been a problem for a long time. For decades more than one in four students (30%) left school with low levels of skills. Most of these students come from low socio-economic backgrounds, and 70% do not obtain the lower secondary degree.

Early school leaving was identified as a major priority in the education reform (Ley Orgánica de la Mejora de la Calidad Educativa, LOCME) approved by Parliament in 2013. The polices implemented to address this issue include:

  • Implementing early evaluations (with no academic consequences) in primary school to identify students that are lagging behind and provide them with the necessary support to overcome their difficulties; as well as evaluations at the end of compulsory and upper secondary to uphold the same standards for all students.

  • Modernisation of the Vocational Education and Training model, including new modules on sectors with middle- and high-level skill jobs; creating flexible trajectories and building bridges with the academic/general path; making the transition from upper secondary to tertiary/vocational and education training (VET) smoother; and strengthening links with the labour market.

In addition, a new dual vocational model was elaborated jointly by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports and the Ministry of Employment, which was approved in 2012. This new model emphasises on-the-job training, thereby involving employers in equipping students with the skills required by the labour market, while at the same time ensuring that students acquire strong foundation skills through the participation of vocational education centres. Despite widespread concerns about whether a model of this kind would work in a country with such a large proportion of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), it proved a success. The number of students quadrupled from the academic year in which it started (2013/14) to the next. Although this still represents a small number of students in absolute terms compared to educational VET, enrolment continues to increase, and employers are becoming increasingly engaged. SMEs are organising themselves into sectors that share common standards, in order to minimise the high costs that training represents for a small firm, and to create a buffer against the risk of having low retention rates if competitors who do not invest in training attract the students after they have been trained.

Since the number of students enrolled in VET increased by 30% (611 000 to 793 000 students from 2011/12 to 2014/15), the rate of early school leaving experienced in parallel the most drastic reduction since recording started, decreasing from 26.3% in 2011 to 20% in 2015. However, the rate is still one of the highest in the European Union (18% in 2017), and the implementation of these measures should continue to ensure that this problem is eradicated.

The Japanese model of education focuses on the holistic approach to education (cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development of students), and uses a broad range of methods to achieve this goal, such as group activities to develop self-initiative and collaborative learning. Teachers focus both on teaching excellence and participate in a range of other activities, such as supervising extracurricular activities. A common teaching method in primary school is the “Lesson Study”, where teachers work together to identify content or skills that are difficult to teach, review academic literature and good practices, and learn from each other through the practice of having one or more teachers observing another teacher use a new pedagogical practice in the classroom. Since 2009, Japan also introduced the Teaching Certificate Renewal System, requiring individuals who currently hold a teaching license to participate in at least 30 hours of professional development programmes every ten years to improve their knowledge and practices.

Japan also focuses on deep and broad stakeholder engagement for the purpose of educational improvement. For instance, boards of education send school supervisors to direct and advise schools regarding curriculum design, and self-assessment is a legal obligation at each educational level up to upper secondary education. Since 2007, a National Assessment of Academic Ability on student and student learning is conducted at Grades 6 and 9 every year. The assessment is only intended for monitoring and improvement purposes. It includes the completion of questionnaires by students, parents and schools to better understand the links between student performance, learning environments, student lifestyles and teaching practices.

In Canada, almost 38% of children under the age of 15 are either immigrants or have at least one parent born abroad. Yet schoolchildren from an immigrant background perform as well as non-immigrant children, even when controlling for socio-economic background. This stands in contrast to the results in most other OECD Member countries.

Canada’s performance is connected, among others, to its strong track record in educating immigrants. Canada has established various comprehensive introduction programmes and rapid language assessments for newly arrived immigrant children. For example, welcome centres assess the English language and mathematics skills of newcomers, helping schools support new students with the most appropriate courses and encouraging a smooth transition for students. Centres also connect students and families with a settlement worker, offer advice on entry into school and provide information on community resources serving immigrant and refugee families.

In Ontario, the biggest hub for migration in Canada, one of the strengths of the education system is the targeted approach to English learners. Depending on their background and individual needs, students are put into one of two programmes: English as a Second Language, for students who have had age-appropriate schooling in their home country, and English Language Development, for students who have had limited access to education and have not had the opportunity to develop age-appropriate skills in any language. Students might be placed in regular classes with additional one-on-one language support and/or receive intensive tutorial support to provide opportunities for practice and reinforcement of language skills studied in the classrooms. In addition to tailored language support, there is a strong emphasis on the socio-emotional, cognitive and physical well-being of students – and immigrant children are offered mental health support to respond to their specific social and emotional needs. Parents are also encouraged to communicate with teachers and actively participate in school life. For example, the Toronto school system has created online resources in multiple languages and provides free interpreters to help parents during in-person or phone parent-teacher conferences. In many communities, local agencies help immigrant and refugee families adapt to life in Canada. Some community organisations also offer homework assistance and tutoring for immigrant children or adolescents. The holistic approach to supporting immigrant students and their families has helped these students to thrive in school and achieve high levels of academic success and socio-emotional well-being.

Source: OECD (2018[51]), Education Policy Outlook 2018: Putting Student Learning at the Centre,; OECD (2018[52]) Education Policy in Japan: Building Bridges Towards 2030,; Bilgili, Özge (2017[53]), “The ‘CHARM’ Policy Analysis Framework: Evaluation of Policies to Promote Immigrant Students’ Resilience”,; Cardoza, Kavitha (2018[54]), “In Canada's Public Schools, Immigrant Students Are Thriving”,; Canadian Paediatric Society (2018[55]), “Caring for Kids New to Canada: School and Education”,; Statistics Canada (2017[56]), “Children with an immigrant background: Bridging cultures”,

Consolidating skills for work and life: Post-initial education and the transition to adulthood

The transition from school to working life, economic independence and active citizenship is a critically important phase in the learning trajectory of an individual. It is strongly influenced by positive and negative experiences in the previous stages, the level of skills acquired and the aspirations that have been built during these stages. Failures at school, under-achievement and the negative feelings projected on the individual that has experienced them, can inhibit a successful start to the learning trajectory in adulthood.

The group of learners most at risk during this transition is those “not in employment, education or training” (NEET). Across OECD Member countries on average, 15% of 18-24 year-olds are NEETs. In Denmark, Germany, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland the share of NEETs is 10% or less, while it is more than 20% in Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Spain and Turkey (OECD, 2017[31]). Over time, the share of NEETs in the relevant age cohorts is slowly decreasing. Still, this group is in a particularly risky situation. They fall between the institutional frameworks and the respective oversight and monitoring mechanisms of education and the world of work. Young people who are neither in employment nor in education or training are at risk of becoming socially excluded – individuals with incomes below the poverty line and lacking the skills to improve their economic situation. The level of skills acquired during compulsory schooling is closely related to the share of NEETs. In general, the higher a country’s percentage of low-performing students at age 15 in PISA, the higher the percentage of NEETs at a later age. For instance, the share of NEETs is lowest in countries with only a small share of young adults with low literacy proficiency (below PISA Level 2) – such as Estonia, Finland or Japan – while it is highest in countries with the highest share of low-skilled students, such as Costa Rica, Mexico and Turkey.

Many NEETs are early school-leavers. They leave the educational system without an upper secondary qualification opening the door to employment and income from work. On average across OECD Member countries, one in five adults has less than an upper secondary level of education (high school degree). In Mexico (64%), Turkey (63%) and Portugal (55%), more than half of 25-64 year-olds reported that they had not attained an upper secondary level of education. Some of these adults have a lower secondary degree at most; others have no formal education degree or even a primary education. Parental background and an accumulation of educational disadvantages strongly influence the likelihood to leave school without a qualification. On average across the OECD, adults with low-educated parents have a 15% chance of attaining tertiary education, according to calculations based on the Survey of Adult Skills (OECD, 2017[6]). By contrast, adults with highly educated parents are on average four times (63%) more likely to obtain a tertiary degree. Furthermore, adults with highly educated parents are six times less likely to have dropped out at the lower secondary level or earlier, compared to those with low-educated parents. The level of educational attainment is also strongly related to labour market outcomes in most OECD Member countries, and adults with a low level of educational attainment are much more likely to face challenges in finding jobs.

Vocational education and training

Across the OECD, many young people leave secondary education and enter adulthood having enjoyed a form of vocational education and training. Traditionally, VET was aimed at providing job-related skills that could be put to immediate use in the labour market. This has led to prejudices and negative perceptions that in some countries still remain. While VET programmes have long allowed graduates to find a job very quickly, longer-term prospects have been hampered due to a lack of strong foundation skills and relatively narrow initial job-related training, making subsequent retraining more difficult. Many countries have responded to this challenge by modernising their VET systems so that students can build strong literacy and numeracy alongside more practical training.

A high-quality vocational learning experience, equipping young people with strong foundation skills and job-specific skills high in demand in the labour market, can provide access to jobs requiring middle and high levels of skills, as well as providing a durable basis for lifelong learning. As a consequence, well-developed VET systems can lead to high levels of employment and the capacity to respond swiftly to changing trends in the demand for skills. Recent OECD work on VET emphasises the importance of providing VET students with high-quality, work-based learning opportunities, through apprenticeships or otherwise.

In order for work-based learning programmes to facilitate smooth transitions into sustained employment, they need to be designed to meet the needs of both workers and employers (Kuczera, 2017[57]). New analysis highlights the essential importance of apprenticeship design (particularly in terms of duration and apprentice pay) and support measures for ensuring that the benefits of investment in apprenticeships exceed costs to employers. International evidence shows that effective apprenticeship design provides greater returns than policies offering financial incentives, such as tax breaks, to employers (OECD, 2018[58]).

Co-operation between education providers, employers and other stakeholders, including trade unions and professional bodies, is essential for developing high-quality, work-based learning programmes (OECD, 2018[58]). The strong engagement of VET stakeholders also encourages more flexible approaches to adults returning to learning. Demand for such “second-chance learning” can be expected to grow as technology transforms work tasks and countries increasingly look to apprenticeship provision as a means to upskill and reskill older workers. Effective VET systems will recognise that older workers are likely to bring with them wide-ranging skills and knowledge, which should be recognised within more individualised programmes (Kis and Windisch, 2018[59]).

Strong connections between VET decision makers and labour market stakeholders, moreover, helps to align education and training programmes with the rapidly changing needs of the labour market (Álvarez-Galván et al., 2015[60]). With work likely to change more rapidly in the future due to technological change, it becomes increasingly important to provide learners with a strong foundation of basic skills. Strong foundation skills provide resiliency in the face of a dynamic labour market where specific technical skills can be expected to become more quickly redundant than in the past. Countries are also focusing more intently on the ultimate employability of the learner. In Belgium (Flanders), for example, Syntra Vlaanderen (Flemish Agency for Entrepreneurial Training) helps develop the entrepreneurial competencies of vocational learners in anticipation of ultimate self-employment (Kis, 2010[61])

One common reason why vocational education appears unattractive to learners is that VET qualifications are often “dead ends”, not leading easily to higher levels of skills. If VET is to attract able and ambitious students, it is essential that clear and well-articulated learning pathways enable progression, up to and including tertiary levels. What’s more, prospective learners need to understand what VET has to offer. This calls for proactive career guidance, including rich employer engagement, to challenge stereotypical perceptions of vocational education and training and the working lives to which it is a gateway. Analysis by the OECD has, moreover, highlighted the important role of career guidance in tackling inequality. Young people with the greatest need for high-quality guidance often receive it least (Musset and Mytna Kurekova, 2018[62]).

OECD Member countries take varying approaches to ensure high-quality vocational learning experiences for youth, so as to equip them with strong foundational and job-specific skills (see Box 4.9 later in this chapter).

Tertiary education

For most OECD Member countries, tertiary education is the part of the learning trajectory where young people acquire the higher levels of generic and specific skills needed in the knowledge economy. The tertiary education system trains people to become professionals or highly specialised workers with advanced skillsets. Therefore, the share of tertiary educated young people is commonly seen as a relevant indicator of a country’s human capital. At the individual level, a higher education qualification still offers the prospect of significant benefits in employability and earnings, despite the fact that in most countries the enrolment and graduation rates have increased massively. The tertiary education system also plays an important role in developing the social and emotional skills citizens require to effectively participate in the social and political processes of developed economies. Tertiary attainment rates thus also correlate highly with indicators of social capital and social cohesion, such as interpersonal trust and volunteering.

From a lifelong learning perspective, the stage of tertiary education seems to add a lot to a young person’s meta-cognitive capacities and the joy of learning. The inequities in adult education participation – the more educated also participate more in adult learning – are very skewed, but they also indicate that tertiary education offers the “learning-to-learn” skills that are so important in the subsequent stages of the learning lifecycle.

From a skills point of view, however, the role of tertiary education in developing skills is more ambiguous than from a qualifications perspective. The results of the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) show that the variation within and between countries in the skills distribution of tertiary graduates is so wide, that the common assumption that a tertiary qualification stands for a globally accepted minimum skills threshold cannot be maintained. The globalisation of tertiary education has not yet led to more harmonisation in the skills equivalent of degrees and qualifications. Even in some countries with highly developed education systems, such as Canada, Israel and the United Kingdom, relatively high shares of tertiary graduates have low levels of basic skills in literacy and numeracy.

The quality of the tertiary education system thus matters significantly. Unfortunately – and despite the importance of tertiary education in the skills development process – there are no valid comparable data on the quality of learning outcomes of graduates beyond the foundation skills assessed in PIAAC. The issue of comparative assessment of students’ or graduates’ learning outcomes is very contentious in the higher education community, and many institutions and countries resist developments towards comparative assessments. As such, perceptions of quality differences between institutions remain largely based on research metrics and reputations, and not on an assessment of the actual skills that graduates have acquired. Comparative measures of graduate learning outcomes could greatly enhance the ability to assess the value and effectiveness of higher education systems and help governments benchmark the quality of their higher education graduates against international standards (OECD, 2017[63]; OECD, 2017[64]).

As tertiary education is turning into an increasingly common trajectory for youth in OECD Member countries, who view higher education as a pathway to better employment, earnings and well-being, the contribution of tertiary education to skills development becomes more important (OECD, 2017[64]). In this context, the boundary between providing “academic” and “vocational” skills is increasingly blurred as institutions strive to provide technical, professional and discipline-specific knowledge and skills, as well as transferable skills, both cognitive and socio-emotional as well as the skills needed for entrepreneurship. In addition, good linkages between tertiary education institutions and employers, strong quality assurance mechanisms, and adequate supports to promote access to, and completion of, tertiary education are critical components to ensure smooth transitions to changing labour markets for all learners.

There are a number of areas where the performance of tertiary education systems can be improved: skills mismatches, for example (see Chapter 5), which can arise when tertiary education is not well aligned with the skills needs of a country. Such mismatches can take the form of over-qualification when the supply of and demand for tertiary education have expanded beyond the capacity of a country’s labour market to absorb the rising numbers of graduates. This is most visible in countries with rapidly expanding tertiary education systems, such as in Korea or Spain. However, even in systems where the mismatch between the level of qualifications and skills is not a major issue, there can be issues with respect to the relevance of the skills acquired. Field-of-study mismatches, for example, arise when students’ choices of field of study do not match well with the specific needs for categories of high-skilled workers and professionals. All OECD Member countries have a certain degree of field-of-study mismatch, but this is not seen as a real problem in all cases. High levels of mobility across fields can signal that the education system provides strong transversal and transferable skills that employers are willing to invest in job-specific training, and that experience compensates for lack of credentials. However, field-of-study mismatch can be a serious problem for those graduates who have to accept a lower-level job as a result of lacking field-specific knowledge, and experience significant wage penalties as a result (Montt, 2015[65]). More generally, increased mobility in the labour market requires tertiary education institutions to develop not only students’ field-specific knowledge but also generic, transversal and learning-to-learn skills, to ensure graduates’ long-term employability.

OECD Member countries take varying approaches to ensure tertiary education equips students with skills for the knowledge economy and for continued learning in adulthood (Box 4.9).

Box 4.9. Country practices: Providing a good start for lifelong learning in post-initial education

Finland has a high share of young adults attaining tertiary education, a small share of low-skilled adults and a high share of adults with well-rounded skillsets. The government has targeted schemes to encourage ease and efficiency in the transition from education to the world of work. As part of the Youth Guarantee, a commitment made in 2013 by all EU member states to ensure work or study opportunities for youth under 25 within four months of becoming unemployed or leaving education, Finland implemented the Young Adult Skills Programme for young adults aged 20–29 without an upper secondary qualification. This programme gives youth the opportunity to complete a vocational qualification at upper-secondary or post-secondary level through the creation of an additional 1 700 study places. During the two first years of the programme (2013-15), 9 160 students had started the programme in an educational institution and 785 students had started an apprenticeship. The programme emphasises job-specific vocational skills and other essential skills youth need for inclusion in society and provides students with a range of support services both in and outside of the classroom.

In Denmark, each of the country’s approximately 117 vocational colleges (providing school-based education and training) work with at least one local training committee that includes representatives of local employers and employees appointed by national trade committees, and representatives of staff, management and students appointed by colleges. Local training committees work closely with colleges to adapt the content of VET programmes to local needs, strengthen contacts between the college and local employers, and support colleges with the delivery of programmes, for example by securing work placements for students.

In the Netherlands, the national Digital Agenda aims to promote the effective use of information and communication technology (ICT) in education and skills development programmes as well as the adequate supply of skills for a digital world. Through its Human Capital Agenda for ICT, the government encourages the study and use of ICT in secondary schools and supports regional co-operation of educational and training institutions and labour market stakeholders. The “Pass IT on!” (“Geef IT Door”) initiative was set up to increase young people’s interest in studying and working in ICT by providing guest lectures from ICT professionals in secondary school. In these guest lectures, professionals talk about working in the ICT sector or address a specific subject, such as big data, cybersecurity or programming. The programme has been successful, with over 250 schools already applying for a guest lecture.

In Canada, the Government of Ontario is seeking to improve the development of transversal and job-specific skills in tertiary education.

The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) completed two large-scale trials at 20 universities and colleges to measure literacy, numeracy and critical-thinking skills among entering and graduating students. The trials aimed to improve understanding of the skills gap among post-secondary graduates and encourage institutions to teach, measure and credential skills that are highly sought by employers and the labour market rather than discipline-specific content alone. The results showed some evidence of final-year students having higher scores in literacy and numeracy than first-year students, although with considerable variation among programmes. HEQCO recommended that such assessments be implemented for all institutions and students, and be integrated into programme requirements.

To ensure the participation of social partners in curriculum design and development, Ontario requires that public colleges establish a “programme advisory committee” (PAC) for each programme or cluster of programmes. These PACs generally consist of 5 to 12 members and are composed of college staff, students and a “cross-section of persons external to the college who have direct interest in and a diversity of experience and expertise related to the particular field occupation area addressed by the programme” (Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, revised 2009). Surveys of PAC members reveal high levels of satisfaction with their efficacy, and colleges that have transitioned to universities have decided to maintain their PACs, although they are not required to.

Source: OECD (2015[66]), “Building Skills For All: A Review of Finland. Policy Insights in Literacy, Numeracy and Digital Skills from the Survey of Adult Skills”,; Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy (2018[67]), Dutch Digitalisation Strategy, ; Undervisningsminsteriet (2018[68]), Om Rådet for de grundlæggende Erhvervsrettede Uddannelser,; Andersen, O. and K. Kruse (2016[69]), “Vocational education and training in Europe – Denmark”,; Weingarten, H. and M. Hicks (2018[70]), “Summary of Findings from HEQCO’s Skills Assessment Pilot Studies”,; OECD (2018[71]), Higher Education in Norway: Labour Market Relevance and Outcomes,

Policy recommendations for providing a good start for lifelong learning

In light of the findings and practices above, the following policy recommendations can help countries provide a good start for lifelong learning (Box 4.10).

Box 4.10. Policy recommendations: Providing a good start for lifelong learning

In the early years

  • Remove barriers to accessing early childhood education and care. The main obstacle that prevents children in low-income families from attending ECEC is affordability. Care hours and proximity of services also affect the choices parents from disadvantaged backgrounds make regarding ECEC enrolment for their children. Providing support in financing and extra care hours – especially for lone-parents – can help remove barriers to accessing ECEC.

  • Strengthen the quality of ECEC services. Quality in ECEC services for all children must be a cornerstone of policies for early childhood education. The quality of ECEC is a crucial element in children’s learning outcomes and is especially important for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are generally at higher risk of not being able to obtain quality ECEC services. Attracting high-quality ECEC teachers to impoverished areas is difficult, and constructing and improving ECEC facilities can be challenging if funding is not forthcoming.

  • Support families to raise skilled, lifelong learners. Policies to support home visits, community outreach and parenting training initiatives can foster greater social cohesion and improved outcomes for children.

In compulsory schooling

  • Identify low performers early in life, through formative assessment. In order to identify low performers, diagnostic assessments need to be conducted, especially at the beginning of the school year, so that appropriate support can be provided to the students who need it. These evaluations can assess what students know and can do, as well as which subject areas and knowledge they lack, which provides a baseline against which to assess their progress. To track their progress towards learning goals, however, the assessments need to be carried out throughout the academic year. The information on students’ performance should then be used to set actionable next steps and to identify the areas that need special attention (OECD, 2012[46]; OECD, 2005[72]).

  • Provide targeted support to students who need it. Once the students who are struggling have been identified, they require adequate levels of support (OECD, 2016[47]). Providing support for low performing students is likely to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds in particular.

  • Provide additional resources and support to disadvantaged schools. According to the PISA 2015 results, major discrepancies in the distribution of educational resources between advantaged and disadvantaged schools were reported by school leaders in most OECD Member countries. Many school principals in schools serving disadvantaged learners reported that access to and quality of educational resources, including teaching staff, reduces the quality of instruction provided to their students. Principals in disadvantaged schools reported that the amount and/or quality of resources in their schools negatively affect the schools’ capacity to provide quality instruction to a greater extent than did principals in advantaged schools.

  • Maintain high expectations for all. Low achievers tend to attribute their unsuccessful learning outcome to a low level of ability rather than to a lack of effort. Such ideas are often developed early in life through interaction between parents, teachers and peers, and reinforced during subsequent stages of the educational trajectory. Parents’ expectations, attitudes and perspectives can influence their children’s attitude toward learning and academic outcomes. This plays a crucial role in setting students’ expectations, their ambition to achieve academic goals and their “joy of learning”. School leaders and teachers also play a significant role in influencing students’ ambitions and expectations about their academic achievement.

  • Attract experienced and highly qualified teachers. Teachers have the primary responsibility for providing education to students and are best positioned to provide adequate support since they know their students and their circumstances best. However, evidence shows that disadvantaged schools, especially schools in rural and remote areas, are more likely to have teacher shortages (OECD, 2012[46]). In some countries, disadvantaged schools have a smaller proportion of qualified teachers with a university degree than advantaged schools. To attract and retain high-quality teachers in disadvantaged schools, financial and career incentives may need to be provided.

In post-initial education

  • Provide targeted support and career guidance to individuals at risk, particularly those not in employment, education or training. The transition from initial education to work and adult life can be particularly challenging and risky for those with low levels of educational attainment, experiences of failure and drop-out, accumulated learning disadvantages and low levels of skills. These groups include NEETs, but also other categories such as unemployed youth, women who have left the world of work and immigrants and refugees without strong language skills. Identifying those at risk and providing tailored support, guidance and learning opportunities can help improve transitions to work and adult life.

  • Provide high-quality, work-based learning opportunities. High-quality, work-based learning provides excellent opportunities to support integration in the labour market. Challenges can exist, however, in ensuring that employers are willing to take on such learners in programmes like apprenticeships. International evidence shows that financial incentives to employers, such as tax breaks and subsidies, are unlikely to be successful on their own. Attention should also be focussed on non-financial measures that improve the cost-benefit balance of apprenticeship to employers, especially for SMEs. These include adjusting key parameters of apprenticeship schemes (notably programme duration), better preparation for apprenticeship and providing support (e.g. remedial courses, mentoring) during apprenticeship. Tertiary education institutions, too, can establish linkages with employers to provide students with relevant work experience before graduation.

  • Develop both basic and technical skills in vocational training. Education and training play a critical role in equipping learners with skills, knowledge and personal attributes that increase the likelihood of being employed and pursuing occupations of their choice (in other words, their “employability”). This also applies to vocational training. Combining basic skills and practical training for vocational students, especially “on the job”, offers the best opportunities for lasting employability, for acquiring positive learning experiences and enhancing the probability of future learning.

  • Equip tertiary students with transversal skills needed for success in the long term. Transversal cognitive, social and emotional skills and learning-to-learn skills are becoming increasingly important for the long-term employability and continued learning of tertiary graduates. However, many students enter and graduate from tertiary education with gaps in their transversal skills. Increasingly, tertiary education systems must seek to better assess students’ transversal skills at the point of entry, and actively develop these skills alongside students’ field-specific knowledge.

  • Provide opportunities for “second-chance” education. Adults who have missed out on the opportunities of the compulsory education system for whatever reason deserve a “second chance” to acquire a meaningful qualification. This can open the door to further learning and/or employment. A successful educational experience, after repeated failures, might also awaken the appetite for learning later on. Furthermore, tertiary education providers must become more effective at tailoring programmes to the needs and constraints of adults wishing to upskill or reskill.

Making lifelong learning affordable and sustainable: Strengthening financing arrangements for adult learning

Developing strong skills early in life is important for the success of both individuals and societies. However, large skills investments during the early years are insufficient in a changing world of work, where digitalisation changes work practices, demands higher levels of skills, but also renders skills obsolete more quickly. As people are expected to stay longer in the labour market in a context of increasing lifespans, there is mounting pressure to ensure they have the right skills throughout life (OECD, 2017[73]). Ensuring all adults have opportunities to upskill is thus a priority, which has become particularly relevant in light of the increasing share of workers in non-standard working arrangements (the so-called “gig economy”). Indeed, workers with short-term contracts or freelancers who lack permanent jobs and whose attachment to an individual employer is limited may face greater barriers to upskill (Katz and Krueger, 2016[74])

Most governments’ budgets are insufficient to invest in the training activities that adults will need to regularly maintain their skills, upskill or reskill in order to be employable. Strengthening financing and cost-sharing arrangements has become essential to ensure investments for lifelong learning are sufficient.

The challenge: Raising skills investments and making incentives work

Despite the urgent need to increase participation in adult learning in many OECD Member countries, education budgets are highly concentrated in initial formal education. Even though it is difficult to measure the actual level of investment in adult learning, UNESCO estimates that 42% of countries spend less than 1% of their public education budgets on adult training and education (UNESCO/UIL, 2016[75]). A previous study (FiBS and DIE, 2013[76]) estimates that total spending on adult learning ranges between 0.6% and 1.1% of gross domestic product (GDP). Of this, individuals and employers contribute significantly more than governments (0.1% to 0.2% of GDP from governments versus 0.4% to 0.5% from employers and 0.2% to 0.3% from individuals).

Education and training decisions are subject to market failures such as imperfect and asymmetric information, liquidity and credit constraints, imperfect contractibility and the risk of poaching. These prevent firms and individuals from making optimal skills investment decisions (OECD, 2005[33]). In fact, the low levels of adult participation in training in some countries, combined with the risk associated with insufficient skill levels for both individuals and societies, suggest sub-optimal levels of skills investments. This provides a strong rationale for governments to put in place financial incentives to increase investment in skills over the life course and to better align skills supply with labour market needs.

Policy makers have acknowledged the importance of policies aimed at providing financial incentives to promote the development of skills beyond initial formal education. As shown in Figure 4.6, costs remain a notable barrier for many adults who reported they wanted to engage in learning but could not. For instance, in Israel, Greece and Slovenia, about 25% of adults who wanted to, but did not, participate in training cited cost as an obstacle (OECD, 2017[77]). While in countries like Denmark, Estonia, France and Israel, the low-skilled were most likely to report cost as a barrier, in Greece, Lithuania, Poland and Turkey, the high-skilled were most likely to report cost as a barrier. This suggests that different groups of adults may need differing levels and types of financial support.

Figure 4.6. Cost of training as the main obstacle to participation in adult learning
The share of adults who wanted to participate, but who could not and who cited cost as the main barrier, by skill level, 2012 or 2015
Figure 4.6. Cost of training as the main obstacle to participation in adult learning

Source: OECD calculations based on OECD (2018[4]), Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) (database), 2012/2015,


The potential scope for using financial incentives to steer education and training decisions is vast. They can be used in initial and continuing education; from basic skills to doctoral training; in vocational and academic education; and for the employed as well as the unemployed and inactive (OECD, 2017[73]). They can work either on the supply side (education and training providers) or on the demand side (individuals and employers). The choice of which group financial incentives should focus on requires a careful diagnosis of the problem. While incentives are more often used to encourage more investment in education and training, they can also be used to steer the provision and acquisition of education and training in areas of skills shortage (OECD, 2017[78]).

Good practices

Financial incentives for individuals

Financial incentives can be used to encourage individuals to acquire certain types of skills. The most commonly used approach is to provide subsidies, including scholarships, grants, bursaries, allowances, vouchers and training cheques. These are the most direct and flexible ways of providing financial incentives, and they can be targeted at the employed, through subsidies for training existing employees, or to the unemployed.

Subsidies to the employed are most often paid directly to employers. However, certain “retention and advancement” programmes target low-skilled workers who are less likely to benefit from employer-sponsored training and aim to increase their chances of retaining their existing jobs and/or moving to a higher quality one. In Germany, for example, workers without qualifications and workers who have spent at least four years in a job unrelated to their initial training may receive funds from the government to retrain in an area with good labour market prospects. Individual time/savings accounts are another, less frequently used, instrument for governments to encourage training (Box 4.11).

Financial incentives targeting employers may focus disproportionately on firm-specific skills, limiting the reallocation of labour across regions or sectors. In contrast, incentives for individuals allow them to develop transferable skills that can be used with different employers and in different contexts, facilitating the reallocation of skills between regions or sectors.

Financial incentives for individuals can be targeted to those most in need, such as individuals in SMEs, who typically face higher training barriers. Investing in training tends to be more costly for SMEs than for larger firms, for which the administrative cost of providing training and the cost of replacing workers while they are in training is lower. With the rise of the gig economy, the number of individuals in non-traditional work arrangements is growing fast. Online platforms facilitate connections between workers and employers and make it easier for people to work on a temporary basis, combine different sources of income and may help increase their autonomy. These new arrangements may thus lower the barriers to entry and exit of work and allow marginal groups to enter the labour force. However, they have significant drawbacks as well, including more restricted access to traditional employer-sponsored training. In this context, incentives targeting individuals can help overcome this barrier.

While new evidence from large online platforms such as Uber and Airbnb suggests these operators may also want to facilitate training to non-traditional workers, especially in the case of repeated or long-term hiring (OECD, 2016[23]), gig work in other contexts may leave workers with few opportunities to upskill. Policies aimed at making training more systematic for non-traditional workers in these arrangements can include direct subsidies or vouchers targeting employees in non-standard contracts, such as part-time employees or freelancers.

OECD Member countries utilise a range of financial incentives for individual learners, including:

  • Subsidies: Scholarships, grants, bursaries, allowances, vouchers, training cheques, credits (e.g. Belgium [Flanders], Germany, Japan, Portugal, the United States).

  • Savings mechanisms: Individual learning accounts, time accounts (e.g. France) (Box 4.11).

  • Tax incentives: Tax allowances, tax credits, tax relief (e.g. Czech Republic, the Netherlands).

  • Loans: State guarantees, interest rate subsidies, loan guarantees, income-contingent repayments, student loan remission and/or forgiveness (e.g. Australia, Canada, Finland, Sweden, United Kingdom).

  • Study/training leave: Entitlement to wage, protection from dismissal, retention of entitlements to health insurance and pensions (e.g. Austria, Estonia, France, Germany, Iceland).

Box 4.11. Country practices: Financial incentives for individual learners

France has introduced a time savings account system called “Compte Personnel de Formation” (CPF), which allows employees to accumulate time credits over a number of years and subsequently use these credits for either early/gradual retirement, the take-up of part-time work or training leave. The time savings account has changed significantly in recent years. For example, in 2018, the time entitlement was converted to a grant of EUR 500 annually per employee, for both full- and part-time employees, up to a ceiling of EUR 5 000 for ten years, and EUR 800 annually for low-skilled adults, up to a ceiling of EUR 8 000 for ten years. This enhanced CPF is coupled with the introduction of a quality certification process of training providers, as well as with an online information platform, which is also available via an app, to help learners navigate the offer and pay learning providers directly from their CPF.

Germany provides study leave incentives that focus on the low-skilled and SMEs. The WeGebAU programme, established in 2006, supports low-skilled unemployed and employed persons – as well as employees aged 45 and over – in SMEs wishing to acquire a vocational training degree or to participate in certified continuous training. The participant receives an education voucher with which the Public Employment Service (PES) certifies that certain expenses are absorbed. In addition, unemployment benefits can be paid for the time of the subsidised further training. The PES also pays wage subsidies and social security contributions for low-qualified employees during their training.

In the United States, the WorkAdvance programme helps low-income adults obtain more rewarding jobs in high-demand fields with opportunities for career growth (e.g. information technology, transportation, manufacturing, healthcare and environmental remediation). The programme offers formal training that takes into account employers’ skills requirements and results in industry-recognised certifications.

Source: Adapted from Ministère du Travail (2018[79]), “Transformation de la Formation Professionnelle”,; OECD (2017[73]), Financial Incentives for Steering Education and Training,

Financial incentives for employers

Governments can also target financial incentives at employers to encourage them to invest in training. Targeting financial incentives at employers rather than individuals has the advantage that it is more likely to meet specific labour market needs since employers are better informed about the specific skills their employees need to perform better in the workplace. However, targeting financial incentives at employers may not be effective at reaching disadvantaged workers, such as the low-skilled, and may disproportionately fund firm-specific skills.

The vast majority of incentives for steering the training decisions of employers come in the form of direct subsidies (ILO, 2018[80]). Most of these remain general and do not target specific skills; instead, they allow for flexibility in the identification of training needs. Subsidies that target specific sectors (rather than skills) are common, to achieve various objectives: 1) supporting structural change; 2) overcoming specific training barriers; or 3) supporting strategic sectors and sectors with growth potential.

OECD Member countries utilise a range of financial incentives for employers to engage in education and training (Box 4.12), including:

  • Subsidies and tax incentives: For work-based learning or apprenticeships, to hire and train the unemployed, to train existing workers (e.g. Australia, Austria, Chile, United Kingdom [England], Netherlands, Poland).

  • Training levies: Revenue-generating schemes, levy-grant schemes, train-or-pay schemes (e.g. Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Netherlands, Switzerland).

  • Loans: For firms to invest in training (e.g. Korea).

  • Job rotation: Temporary replacement of workers in training (e.g. Denmark, Portugal).

  • Payback clauses: Legal protection to recover at least part of their investment in training in the event that the trained employee leaves soon afterwards (e.g. Germany, Latvia, Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland).

Box 4.12. Country practices: Financial incentives for employers

In Belgium (Flanders), the SME Wallet (KMO-portefeuille) programme offers specific incentives to incentivise SMEs to train their employees. It targets SMEs exclusively and is designed to help them grow and become more competitive through skills investments. The SME Wallet covers 30-40% of training costs, depending on the size of the enterprise. SMEs can apply for subsidies on line. Employers determine their own training needs, and there is no targeting element. A recent impact assessment determined that participating firms achieved higher growth than a control group. Other countries have developed similar programmes targeting SMEs exclusively, including the Chèque Formation in Wallonia, Belgium; Profi!Lehre and Weiter!Bilden in Austria; Consortium for HRD Ability Magnified Program (CHAMP) in Korea, the Industry Skills Fund in Australia and the Formação-Ação in Portugal.

Denmark maintains a dual apprenticeship system supported by an employer levy system. All employers, public and private, contribute a fixed amount for each employee (in 2016, around EUR 370 per year) to the Employers’ Reimbursement Fund. Levy funds are used primarily to pay apprentice salaries while apprentices are pursuing off-the-job training. Reimbursements may exceed the wage in some cases. There are bonuses for youth who find a paid apprenticeship without assistance. Apprentice wages are set at the sector level through collective agreements and are typically 40-50% of the minimum wage. Apprenticeship programmes consist of a basic (academic) and a main (practical) programme. For the main programme, the student must find a training agreement with a company approved by the social partners. When undertaking the main programme, students alternate between training periods in the company and practical education at college. Overall, 50-70% of the practical education takes place within a company.

In United Kingdom (England), an Apprenticeship Grant for Employers is available for those who have fewer than 50 employees, and have not had an employee start an apprenticeship in the previous 12 months. The aim is to support employers in creating new jobs and recruiting new 16-24 year-olds. Eligible employers receive a payment of GBP 1 500 once a qualifying apprentice has completed 13 weeks “in learning”, and they can claim up to five grants during the time the grant is available.

In France, the Jobs of the Future (Emplois d’avenir) programme encourages employers to hire low-skilled, unemployed youth for a period of three years. The government covers 75% of the wage costs (paid at the minimum wage) and, in return, the employer commits to providing a tutor who will accompany the young person and assist him or her in identifying and participating in appropriate training. The programme focuses on the digital and green sectors, health and social services, and the care, culture and tourism sectors. Similar programmes exist in Italy (Tirocini in Garanzia Giovani) and in the Slovak Republic.

Source: Adapted from OECD (2017[73]) Financial Incentives for Steering Education and Training,; Kuczera, M. and S. Field (2018[81]) Apprenticeship in England, United Kingdom,

Policy recommendations for making lifelong learning affordable and sustainable

In light of the findings and practices above, the following policy recommendations can help countries make lifelong learning affordable and sustainable (Box 4.13).

Box 4.13. Policy recommendations: Making lifelong learning affordable and sustainable
  • Fund a wide range of training forms and needs. Education and training needs are highly heterogeneous. The challenges and incentives to undertake further education vary significantly from one group of workers to another and financing policies need to recognise such diversity. Financing instruments should be designed to target specific groups and be flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of training forms and needs.

  • Target funding to the disadvantaged. Those who need education and training the most are typically those with the least access to it. Efforts should be concentrated in designing effective financing incentives for workers in disadvantaged positions, such as the self-employed, workers in non-standard employment contracts, immigrants and refugees, low-skilled individuals and the unemployed. Schemes that are less targeted often end up favouring the groups already with the best access to education and training (e.g. the highly skilled) and, therefore, subsidise training that would have occurred anyway.

  • Target funding to individuals. Moving to a scheme where security and benefits, including incentives for training and education, are linked to individuals instead of jobs, can help overcome the low incentives for and barriers to training faced by adults in non-standard work, including the gig economy.

  • Couple financial incentives with other support. Financial incentives are likely to address only part of the barriers to skills investments that individuals and employers face. Financial incentives to promote lifelong learning should be coupled with complementary non-financial assistance in the form of guidance, counselling, as well as interventions aimed at informing and raising awareness of the benefits of a lifelong learning culture (see the section, Providing a good start for lifelong learning: Building a strong foundation in early learning and formal education”).

Making lifelong learning visible and rewarding: Strengthening systems of skills validation and certification

Acquiring skills over a lifetime is even more rewarding when it is recognised. Validating and certifying skills is a critical part of encouraging lifelong learning.

Assessing skills is a challenge in all education and training systems, as noted earlier. Individuals with the same level of formal qualifications have skill levels that differ significantly (Figure 4.4). The problem is exacerbated by the megatrends discussed in Chapter 3. In addition, the increased use of digital technology at work is shifting the types of tasks workers undertake. Routine tasks – i.e. that involve cognitive or manual tasks accomplished following explicit rules – are declining, as are tasks that do not require the use of ICT technologies. Conversely, non-routine tasks and those involving a high use of technology are growing (Autor, Levy and Murnane, 2003[82]). This increases the requirement for well-rounded skillsets, including cognitive, digital and socio-emotional skills. Some of these skills, such as socio-emotional skills, may be more challenging to assess than specific, narrower skillsets. Globalisation further increases the need for good systems to assess and recognise skills across countries, as it facilitates the mobility of students and workers across borders. Even when workers do not move, outsourcing to workers in other countries is increasingly common in the digital economy (OECD, 2017[83]).

On the supply side, the quantity of learning opportunities outside of formal education has soared in OECD Member countries in recent decades. These opportunities are diverse, with the increased role of private sector providers in the delivery of adult learning and the proliferation of online learning options making it more difficult to assess quality (OECD, 2005[33]; OECD, 2019[5]).

The challenge: Creating better systems to recognise and certify skills

Making skills more transparent through validation and certification of prior learning has multiple benefits. For individuals, it can lead to higher employability, skills use and job satisfaction. It can also be a bridge to re-engage with formal learning by limiting the amount of time and cost required to complete a credential. For employers, having a better understanding of the skills of their employees can help to avoid skills mismatches and lead to higher productivity and reduced staff turnover. For society at large, skills recognition can improve skills matches in the labour market, in turn leading to lower unemployment benefits and higher tax revenue.

The potential for validating and certifying skills acquired through prior learning appears to be significant across OECD Member countries. In Italy and Japan, for example, many low-educated adults have literacy proficiency levels on par with medium- and even highly-educated adults (Figure 4.4).

Assessing and certifying skills is thus increasingly needed, but it can be complex and costly. Processes to recognise prior learning often involve several assessment methods, ranging from reviews of portfolios, written examinations and interviews or face-to-face exercises to assess skills such as socio-emotional skills (Kis and Windisch, 2018[59]) It is critical to make such processes more accessible and efficient for all parties involved.

Learning opportunities outside of initial formal education often fall outside formal education and nomenclature systems such as national qualifications frameworks. This can make it difficult for employers, formal education and training providers and prospective learners to understand and value (OECD, 2014[84]).

Good practices

Two broad systems of skills assessment and recognition are used in OECD Member countries: one involves assessing and validating skills obtained through prior learning to issue a formal education qualification, while the other is competency-based and involves awarding non-formal credentials.

Recognising prior learning for the purposes of granting a formal education qualification is a long-standing approach, which consists of clarifying what formal qualifications entail in terms of what students can do in practice – the skills they are expected to have upon completion. Combined with various mechanisms for students to demonstrate the skills they have, these approaches help identify skills that individuals already have that can count towards the award of a credential. In this context, national qualifications frameworks and supranational tools such as the European Qualifications Framework and the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) can be useful. This approach has several benefits, from enabling further learning in a time- and cost-efficient manner to facilitating mobility of learners across institutions at a given level (e.g. in tertiary education), between levels of education (e.g. secondary to tertiary education) and between countries (e.g. for international students but also highly skilled migrants seeking access to regulated professions in their host country).

Some countries have developed and scaled up such systems. For instance, Portugal has developed standards to recognise skills acquired by adults outside of formal education that are equivalent to those required to obtain an upper secondary diploma and has hundreds of adult-learning centres across the country with staff dedicated to helping adults undergo such a process (OECD, 2018[22]). In the United States, processes to identify equivalencies between the skills provided by non-formal learning programmes, for instance, delivered by employers, and post-secondary credentials are well developed. Organisations such as the American Council on Education, which reviews non-formal programmes and makes recommendations for recognition, play an important role in such a system (OECD/ELS, 2018[18]; OECD, 2019[5]).

The second approach is competency-based and consists of assessing and recognising skills acquired through tools other than the award of formal credentials. The development of open badges and credentialing platforms, as well as “nanodegrees” or “micromasters” developed by providers of massive open online courses are examples of this approach. These tools aim to recognise a broader range of skills than those provided through formal education. When it comes to MOOC-based credentials, they can also be very specific, around a particular set of technical skills and knowledge. Several large online platforms that facilitate the hiring of freelancers also offer online skills tests, where freelancers can take multiple-choice quizzes on various skills, across a variety of skills domains. Some of the features of online platforms, where employers can provide feedback on the quality of hires, can help individuals who otherwise face challenges in signalling their skills to employers, e.g. contract workers with limited experience or from emerging economies (Lehdonvirta et al., 2018[26]); (Agrawal, Lacetera and Lyons, 2016[85]).

In some countries, public employment services are initiating approaches to test clients’ skills acquired outside of formal education (Box 4.14).

Box 4.14. Country practices: Skills assessment and recognition

In Germany, the federal employment agency, together with the Bertelsmann Foundation, has developed a new test for unemployed persons without a vocational training certificate and refugees, called MYSKILLS. The test consists of 120 questions followed by an assessment interview and is designed to help jobseekers without formal vocational qualifications to better demonstrate their vocational skills. Currently, this computer-based test exists for eight occupations and is offered in German, English, Russian, Turkish, Farsi and Arabic. Over the course of the year, the test will be expanded to include 30 occupations.

South Africa has a well-established system for recognising prior learning. In place since the start of democracy in 1995, the recognition of prior learning has been important to redress the inequalities created by the apartheid system by enabling validation of skills for those who had been denied access to quality formal education. A new policy recognising prior learning for artisans proposes to provide full artisan trade qualifications to non-contracted learners who pass a national trade test - a policy which should help to address shortages in the skilled trades.

Source: OECD (2017[20]), Getting Skills Right: Good Practice in Adapting to Changing Skill Needs: A Perspective on France, Italy, Spain, South Africa and the United Kingdom,; OECD/ELS (2018[18]), “Policy Questionnaire: Readiness of Adult Learning Systems to Address Changing Skills Needs”, internal document.

Firms are also developing their own skills assessment systems as well as skills badges and certifications, relying less on credentials. At this stage, the prevalence of these practices is not well known, although it appears to be growing, mostly driven by large private sector ICT firms, such as IBM, Microsoft and Oracle (OECD, 2019[5]). Some firms combine short-term learning opportunities and assessment practices, as shown by the example of a tool developed by Google to help learners use Google Analytics, which has been implemented as part of a tertiary-level education programme (Staton, 2016[86]). However, small-scale employers with no capacity to conduct skills assessments in-house or to pay for other market-based solutions may continue to rely on credentials.

The proliferation of assessment tools raises questions about how to ensure their acceptance and quality. Assessment tools and the qualifications they award must be recognised by employers. Where the tools and qualifications become too numerous or diverse, employers may not recognise the quality, validity or value of the credential. Tools should also be designed to ensure assessments: 1) effectively test the skills of individuals, rather than associate the simple participation in training activities with the acquisition of skills; 2) are broad enough to test various relevant skills; and 3) are inclusive enough so as not to put certain groups at a disadvantage (e.g. due to lack of access or experience with the assessment technology).

These two approaches – to recognise skills towards the award of a formal credential, or through new forms of skills recognition – are not mutually exclusive. Individuals may use them either sequentially or simultaneously, based on their needs. In both cases, improving the credibility of skills assessment and recognition systems requires designing tools that are relevant to employer needs, relevant to learners’ needs, embedded in national qualifications frameworks where possible, and have mechanisms in place to avoid various risks such as fraud and privacy concerns. The OECD’s Education and Skills Online is an assessment tool that can be helpful in this context. The tool allows individuals to take a test and to obtain results that are linked to PIAAC measures of literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments.

Finally, technology has the potential to transform how people’s skills are recognised and validated. Globalisation and international mobility have heightened the need for more universally recognised, validated and secured certification of skills (Gräther et al., 2018[87]).

Blockchain technology could offer a solution to record an individual’s learning, securely through cryptographic methods, in a verifiable and permanent way. It could provide a practical solution for issuing, validating and sharing certificates among learners, educators and employers without the need for a trusted intermediary (such as an accreditation body) (Chen et al., 2018[88]). Although still in its infancy, Blockchain has applications in the world of learning from individual to national and international levels. It could be used to store credentials and certificates from all forms of learning, enabling adults to create a personal portfolio that is recognised and valued in the labour market (Clark, 2016[89]). Blockchain has already been used for issuing digital certificates (MIT Media Lab, Open University, University of Nicosia), in-house certificates within workplaces (Sony), and verification of e-portfolios (Indorse). However, the application of Blockchain technology in lifelong learning systems faces several challenges. These include not only data-regulation issues but institutional and governance arrangements to develop common standards and create and grant certification (Grech and Camilleri, 2017[90]).

Policy recommendations for making lifelong learning visible and rewarding

In light of the findings and practices above, the following policy recommendations can help countries make lifelong learning visible and rewarding (Box 4.15).

Box 4.15. Policy recommendations: Making lifelong learning visible and rewarding
  • Move to a competencies-based approach to formal qualifications. This can help to achieve greater transparency and homogeneity of diplomas issued by different educational institutions, and facilitate modular learning that can better meet the specific needs of individuals and employers. Participation of employers in the design and review of qualification frameworks is important to achieve recognition.

  • Encourage the development of certificates for skills acquired outside initial formal education. Governments, education and training providers and employers can co-operate to define standards and good practices for certification to move towards a more reliable assessment of the skills people have.

  • Integrate certificates earned through non-formal and informal learning in national qualification frameworks. This would need to be on a case-by-case basis and conditional to the respect of various standards to provide better information to employers and education providers. Whether certificates can lead to credit granting or other methods to obtain a formal qualification would be left to the discretion of education providers.

  • Harness technology to record and validate people’s skills. Globalisation has heightened the need for more universally recognised, validated and secured certification of skills. Although still in its infancy, Blockchain technology has the potential to record various forms of learning, enabling adults to create a personal portfolio that is recognised and valued by employers and educators. Countries could investigate how technologies like Blockchain can be utilised to make lifelong learning visible and rewarding.

  • Work towards international harmonisation. Governments could work together to harmonise recognition and certification of skills practices at an international level.

Making lifelong learning accessible and relevant: Responding to the needs of individuals and employers

In addition to the factors explored in previous sections, boosting interest and participation in learning throughout life requires that learning opportunities be both accessible and flexible, in order to suit learners’ needs.

The challenge: Designing more flexible learning opportunities

Across OECD Member countries, participation in adult learning is often below national targets, and lowest for the adults most in need of developing their skills (like the low-skilled) (see the section, “Raising aspirations for lifelong learning: Setting the vision and supporting informed learning choices”). Low motivation to learn and a poor understanding of the benefits of and opportunities for learning are major reasons for this.

However, the responsiveness of education and learning opportunities to individuals’ and employers’ needs also affect participation. The lack of accessibility and flexibility of lifelong learning systems can be a major impediment adults’ participation in learning. This is partly due to adult-learning arrangements being an extension of the formal education arrangements or institutional frameworks designed for youth in compulsory education, without adaptation to the needs and interests of adults.

An analysis of data from PIAAC reveals that time constraints related to work and/or household responsibilities were the most important barriers for 25-64 year-olds to engage in formal or non-formal education or training (OECD, 2017[31]) (Figure 4.7). When asked to state why they did not enrol, on average across OECD Member countries, 29% of respondents indicated that they were too busy at work. A further 15% of respondents never started the learning activity because of childcare or family responsibilities. Thus, for 44% of respondents, the burden of work or family seemed to leave no time for learning activities. In particular, the presence of young children in the household of young adults (25-34 year-olds) has a negative impact on the adult education participation rate. The highest differences in participation rates between those with and without young children (20 percentage points or more) are found in Austria, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Singapore, the Slovak Republic, Spain and Turkey. In countries with higher participation rates, the difference tends to be smaller.

Figure 4.7. Reasons preventing adult participation in (more) formal and/or non-formal education
Figure 4.7. Reasons preventing adult participation in (more) formal and/or non-formal education

Note: Percentage in parentheses represents the share of 25-64 year-olds who wanted to take part in (more) learning activities but did not start. To avoid having too many categories, the category “Other” includes five reasons cited for not starting the activity: did not have the prerequisites; lack of employer’s support; the course or programme was offered at an inconvenient time or place; something unexpected came up that prevented me from taking education or training; other.

* Reference year is 2015; for all other countries and economies, the reference year is 2012.

Source: OECD (2017[31]), Education at a Glance 2017, Table C6.1b.,


Additionally, factors related to how the learning activities were organised prevented a total of 30% of the respondents from participating: for example, the time or place for the delivery of the course was inconvenient (12%), the education or training was too expensive (15%), or they lacked the prerequisites (3%). Some 7% of respondents cited lack of support by their employer (OECD, 2017[31]).

These data suggest that even when adults were interested or motivated to engage in learning activities, the available opportunities simply did not allow them to do so. Barriers relating to the way education and training opportunities are organised seem to be an even greater obstacle than financial barriers.

Good practices

Providing flexible learning opportunities that are compatible with individuals’ daily lives can increase participation in adult education and training. To remove situational, time and geographical barriers, innovative and effective adult-learning programmes, such as online and distance learning, flexible learning arrangements, such as modular classes, evening, weekend and part-time courses may reduce the non-financial barriers to adult-learning participation.

The most effective strategies to make adult-learning opportunities more accessible and adapted to the needs of adults include:

  • Recognition of existing skills: To ensure that learning is as efficient as possible, many OECD Member countries have developed means to take account of existing knowledge and skills in adult learning. Approaches include admitting learners into a programme when they are well placed to benefit even if they lack formal qualifications; reduced programme duration; and progression directly to a concluding assessment (Kis and Windisch, 2018[59]) (see the section, “Making lifelong learning visible and rewarding: Strengthening systems of skills validation and certification”).

  • Flexible time arrangements: In many OECD Member countries, part-time learning opportunities are offered, which allow adults to combine work and learning at the same time. Such adult education programmes can be held on off-hours, at night or on weekends, facilitating the participation of adults who may be busy during the day with work or family responsibilities.

  • Modular course design: Replicating degree programmes designed for full-time students for the purpose of part-time study has been shown to be ineffective as such programmes take too long to complete. Adult learners are not always interested in the full package but want to be in control of selecting specific pieces of information or skills they need to acquire. Modular approaches to course design can allow learners to address their specific learning needs, and can “stack” or accumulate credits towards a formal qualification.

  • Learner-oriented instructional design: Programmes and courses intended for adult learners should be designed according to insights from what is known about the psychology of adult learners. The instructional design of course materials and resources should facilitate self-paced learning, where learners take responsibility for their own learning. However, not all adult learners have the meta-cognitive skills to steer their own learning process, which requires making available appropriate guidance and meta-cognitive skills training to support learners.

  • Credit transferability: Adults are more interested in the objectives, content, purpose and outcomes of learning opportunities than in the specific institution or organisation providing programmes and courses. In a very complex learning market, rather than following a pre-designed linear track, they will select and combine units of learning, such as modules, wherever they are offered. Credits or other forms of certification of modules should, therefore, be transferable and stackable across learning providers. Adult learners should not be confronted with complex issues of credit recognition.

  • Demand-driven programming: Institutional providers of adult learning seldom escape the temptation to program courses and design learning objectives and materials according to what they think is essential or what is easily available. However, effective adult learning requires that curriculum and instructional methods be rooted in what adult learners demand, and what they think is essential to meet their learning needs.

  • Usability of learning: For adult learners, it is essential that the learning process is closely related to and situated where the learning need has originated. Proximity between the learning process and the place where what is learned can be put to use is thus important. This is typically facilitated through workplace learning or learning arrangements involving close interaction with the workplace.

  • Harnessing digitalisation and technology: Information and communication technology can facilitate open, online education, personalised and adaptive learning, free up “class time” for exercises and facilitate interactions across locations. The use of big data for instruction and management has the potential to improve systems and processes. However, technology is not a panacea and may be relatively less beneficial for disadvantaged groups and those with low ICT skills. Policy makers and institutions should follow and expand the evidence on harnessing ICTs for lifelong learning.

In particular, digitalisation provides a range of opportunities to make learning more flexible and accessible for adults, including through open education.

Open education, which offers time- and place-independent learning can be more flexible and sensitive to adults’ time constraints than traditional face-to-face learning. Open universities have existed for a long time, but digitalisation has expanded the possibilities of open education significantly. Open education using digital technologies provides a new level of flexibility to adults combining work and study (OECD, 2019[5]). However, despite the low costs of accessing open education, participation patterns mirror those of standard adult education and training – highly educated and highly skilled adults are most likely to participate. Still, the potential that open education and MOOCs offer to firms to train their workers has not been fully realised, although initiatives are developing in this area.

The OECD Skills Outlook 2019 (OECD, 2019[5]) examines participation in distance education using data from PIAAC which includes questions on participation in courses “which are similar to face-to-face courses but take place via postal or correspondence or electronic media, linking together instructors, teachers and tutors or students who are not together in the classroom.” Since most countries were surveyed in 2012 at a time when massive open online courses were in their infancy, it is likely that responses mainly capture more traditional forms of open education, such as online components of formal education. Uptake of MOOCs and other forms of open education has almost certainly increased since then. Regular registration and monitoring of online learning are needed to keep track of these developments (OECD, 2019[5]).

In countries covered by the PIAAC survey in 2012 and 2015, participation in open education varies considerably across countries, from almost 20% in Korea, a country with a long and large experience with open education, to less than 2% in France. In most countries, young people are more likely to participate in open education than older adults (Figure 4.8). Yet these data also show that in many countries there still is much room for expansion and increased participation in open education (OECD, 2019[5]).

Figure 4.8. Participation in open education by age
The share of the population having participated in open or distance education in the last 12 months prior to the survey
Figure 4.8. Participation in open education by age

Note: In the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) questionnaire, open or distance education is defined as not leading to a formal qualification. It covers courses which are similar to face-to-face courses but take place via postal or correspondence or electronic media, linking together instructors, teachers and tutors or students who are not together in the classroom. These questions were not posed to individuals aged 16 to 19 in formal compulsory education.

Source: OECD calculations based on (2018[4]), Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) (database), 2012/2015,


Virtual learning environments such as video games, simulations and virtual worlds can better motivate students in their learning, facilitate situated-learning experiences that were not possible before (e.g. small schools in remote regions), and generate new avenues for interacting with others to practice particular skills (Merchant et al., 2014[91]; OECD, 2016[92]). Examples may include dissecting animals in a virtual lab or practising certain skills in real-life virtual situations (OECD, 2018[93]).

Digital learning systems that adapt content to learners’ individual responses are improving their capacity by building on cloud computing and educational data mining (Oxman and Wong, 2014[94]). As these systems upgrade and find their way to the classroom – being integrated into learning management systems, for example – teachers can free up time to better plan activities and enhance feedback to students. Increasingly, advances in artificial intelligence will further allow for wider, more refined assessments, such as recognising students’ emotional reactions to the task at hand and opening new ways to facilitate student collaborative learning (Luckin, Holmes and Forcier, 2016[95]; OECD, 2018[93]).

Technology can also be leveraged to reach out to learners and/or those who support them more effectively. There are a number of existing successful examples already. These include text messages to parents to engage them in children’s learning by informing them about the number of missed classes, providing students with career guidance and relevant tips for college admission, or “mindset messages” to help students cultivate positive attitudes towards themselves, their peers and school. These are low-cost and effective interventions that yield positive results (Escueta et al., 2017[96]; OECD, 2018[93]).

However, technology is not a panacea for flexibility and relevance in lifelong learning. Citizens often have privacy concerns, and the benefits of technology will be lower for disadvantaged groups, especially if they lack foundational digital and other skills. Also, the evidence on effective ways to harness ICT for lifelong learning is still emerging. Policy-makers have an important role to play in improving this evidence through high-quality research and experimentation.

OECD Member countries have taken various measures to make education and training more flexible and accessible (Box 4.16).

Box 4.16. Country practices: Making adult learning more flexible

Denmark has one of the highest levels of participation in adult education and continuing training. In 2016, adult participation in both formal and non-formal education was over 50% for adults aged 25 to 65. These high participation rates reflect a long tradition of adult learning in Denmark and the country’s flexible system, among other factors.

In 1996, Denmark introduced an education system for adults that is parallel to the regular system: the adult and continuing education (ACE) system, giving adults the chance to obtain secondary and/or higher education degrees. Much of the provision enables learners to combine learning modules from a diversified range of provision (including non-formal educational programmes that take place in independent institutions) and across different subjects. Individuals obtaining a vocational qualification in Labour Market Training Centres (Arbejdsmarkedsuddannelse), for example, can choose from a wide range of vocational training courses, as well as subjects provided by the general education system.

This allows learners to tailor education and training programmes to their individual needs and interests. The provision of education and training can take the form of short vocational training programmes (either open workshops or programmes organised in classes, the duration of which varies from half a day to six weeks), usually taking place during working hours, but may be organised in the evenings or weekends. It is also possible to organise training activities at the workplace or in the form of distance learning. This flexibility and diversity of learning help address barriers to participation for adult learners with limited time due to work or household responsibilities.

Ireland’s WriteOn programme (active since 2008) is part of a broader distance learning service managed by the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA). It aims to provide quality, free, confidential literacy support on line and by telephone with qualified tutors. Specifically, the programme provides an online skills assessment and flexible learning opportunities to facilitate both the acquisition of literacy skills and accreditation for adult learners at Levels 2 and 3 of the National Qualifications Framework of Ireland.

The programme offers an online tool allowing individuals to undergo a step-by-step process to assess their skill levels. It then provides access to learning resources and individualised tutoring on a free telephone line, allowing people to study at their own pace and in their own time to improve basic foundation skills of literacy and numeracy, while simultaneously developing new digital literacies.

Data collected by NALA suggest that there are 10 000 calls annually from adults seeking advice on how to upgrade their skills; 32 000 learners have created an online learning account; and 2 500 learners went on to obtain 14 500 national certificates at Levels 2 and 3.

Source: Desjardins, R. (2017[97]), Political Economy of Adult Learning Systems: Comparative Study of Strategies, Policies and Constraints, Bloomsbury; Danish Ministry of Education (2018[98]), “Adult vocational training”,; OECD (2019[12]), Getting Skills Right: Future-ready Adult Learning Systems, ; CEDEFOP (2012[99]) Vocational education and training in Denmark,; OECD (2018[22]), Skills Strategy Implementation Guidance for Portugal: Strengthening the Adult-Learning System, Box 3.10,; NALA (2018[100]), “NALA’s Free Distance Learning Service”,

The challenge: Developing relevant skills

Investing in developing skills is beneficial to the extent that the acquired skills are relevant to the needs of economies and societies. Cognitive foundation skills, non-cognitive social and emotional skills and meta-cognitive “learning-to-learn” skills are quite transversal. They are necessary for the development of all other generic and specific skillsets, and will likely become more important as technology and artificial intelligence fundamentally transform the world of work and participation in social life. But when more specific skills are concerned, the concept of “relevance” becomes more important.

In many education systems, trajectories of individuals through the school system and in higher education are very much determined by the preferences and choices made. Various factors come into play when students and their parents make such decisions, and economic and social factors, such as labour market information, are only partly taken into account. Not so long ago, simplistic ideas about “human resource planning” suggested that labour market needs could be predicted with a high degree of accuracy, so this information would be used by young people making their educational choices. Too often, this has led to failures. Even today, it is still difficult for countries to predict, say, the number of medical doctors they will need over a period of six or seven years, the time it takes to train one. The choices made by individuals in education also clearly lead to various forms of mismatches (see Chapter 5). The lack of alignment between skills supply and labour market demand continues to fuel dissatisfaction and concern among employers and policy makers.

In adult education and training, recent OECD research suggests that there are big differences between countries in terms of the overall alignment of adult learning to labour market needs (OECD, 2019[12]). The assessment of skill needs is an important first step in avoiding and tackling skills imbalances. Firms that regularly take stock of their current and future skills needs are better prepared to plan their training and hiring activities. Across European OECD Member countries, on average 69% of firms assess their future skill and competence needs. In Denmark, Hungary, Italy and the United Kingdom, more than 80% of firms report assessing their future skill needs, whereas this is the case for less than 50% of firms in Latvia and Poland. Another important aspect of alignment at the firm level is the degree to which there is an overlap between the identified skill needs of the company and the training activities offered. When comparing the top three skills that enterprises report as important for the development of the firm to the three most important skills targeted in training activities, there is only a complete overlap for 13% of firms across European OECD Member countries.

Training for individuals with particular learning needs is also important to align adult learning with the skills needed in the labour market (OECD, 2019[12]). At the individual level, adults whose skills do not correspond with those required in the labour market have some of the strongest training needs. However, workers in jobs with a significant risk of automation participate less frequently in adult learning than other workers. The same observation holds for workers in easy-to-fill occupations (i.e. occupations for which the demand is lower than the supply): in the majority of OECD Member countries, participation in job-related adult learning is lower for workers in easy-to-fill occupations than for workers in hard-to-fill occupations. Furthermore, about 34% of workers in OECD Member countries with available data say that they would need more training to cope with their current duties. However, only 60.3% of these workers with self-reported training needs participated in training opportunities in the previous 12 months.

Good practices

Policy makers in OECD Member countries have taken a variety of approaches to ensure that education systems supply the skills needed in society and the economy, and minimise skills mismatches. These approaches include:

  • Developing high-quality foundation skills for all students in formal education, including by implementing programmes that focus on transversal and increasingly important skills (for example, digital skills, problem-solving skills, creativity, etc.).

  • Developing flexible arrangements for learners that enable them to transfer more freely between work and training, and between training programmes and providers, to minimise the time investment required to develop relevant skills.

  • Developing specific technical skills within workplaces or in very close collaboration with them. Work-based learning arrangements provide much better opportunities to develop such skills.

  • Designing adult-learning policies and programmes in line with labour market needs, by feeding information from SAA exercises into strategic planning, training standards, and individual programme design.

  • Steering adult-learning investment toward in-demand skills, by restricting training options to those that are in line with skills needs, providing financial or non-financial incentives to invest in certain in-demand skills, and giving information and guidance that stresses the importance of these skills.

  • Assisting workers in sectors undergoing structural change, by using SAA information to identify individuals with skills that do not correspond to those in demand in the labour market, and implementing policies to focus efforts on these individuals.

One specific form of work-relevant training utilised in some OECD Member countries is adult apprentices. These are well established in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, and are now emerging in other OECD Member countries. Interest reflects the growing need to retrain, which reflects the changing character of work and the strength of the apprenticeship brand. The design of apprenticeships aimed at adults often differs from that aimed at young people. Older workers often bring stronger literacy and numeracy and relevant technical knowledge with them, enabling the more rapid development of productive skills. This changes the cost-benefit balance for employers, which often has implications for apprenticeship duration and apprentice pay (Kis and Windisch, 2018[59]).

Countries have taken a variety of approaches to make adult learning relevant to skills needs, to minimise skills mismatches across the working lives of adults (Box 4.17).

Box 4.17. Country practices: Making lifelong learning relevant

The Swedish Higher Vocational Education (HVE) programmes provide post-secondary vocational education that combines theoretical and applied studies in close co-operation with employers and the industry sector. The programmes are oriented towards explicit labour market needs and allow adult learners to put learning into practice through work-based learning. The Swedish government established HVE in 2001 to fill a gap in the Swedish education system by providing non-university higher education programmes in specific, in-demand fields. The main task of the regulatory authority (the Swedish National Agency for HVE) is to analyse the demand for qualified workforce in the labour market, decide which HVE programmes will be offered and allocate public funding to the corresponding education providers. Employers and industries are involved closely in the design of the courses and participate actively by giving lectures and joining in projects. Each year, they also release evaluation results, which are strong overall: seven out of ten students have a job before graduating, and nine of ten students are employed or self-employed one year after graduation.

In Korea, the government, in co-operation with Industry Skills Councils, use labour market information to develop national occupational standards. These standards are applied to vocational education and training qualifications to ensure that they meet the needs of the workplace. At the same time, employers are encouraged to use these same standards in their human resource management.

In United Kingdom (England), apprenticeships are a common way to train incumbent workers, and in the recently reformed apprenticeship system groups of employers (called trailblazers) are responsible for setting apprenticeship standards within their sectors. This system was introduced to ensure a better alignment of the content of apprenticeship programmes to the needs of the workplace.

In Estonia, registered job seekers can access training opportunities through a system of training vouchers (Koolituskaart). These training vouchers have recently also been made available for certain groups of employees, under specific conditions. In the case of low-wage older workers and low-skilled workers, the condition to use the training vouchers is that the training has to be related to ICT skills or skills identified as being in shortage by the Estonian Qualifications Authority. Estonian employers hiring job seekers for certain occupations that are in shortage and of growing importance in the labour market can receive training grants (recruitment training grants - Koolitustoetus töötajate värbamiseks) to partially compensate for the cost of training new hires.

Source: CEDEFOP (2012[99]), Vocational Education and Training in Denmark,; Eurofound (2018[101]), “Denmark: Social partners welcome new tripartite agreement on adult and continuing education”,; (Eurostat, 2016[102]), Adult Education Survey 2016,; OECD (2018[58]), The Future of Education and Skills - Education 2030,; OECD (2019[12]), Getting Skills Right: Future-ready Adult Learning Systems,

Policy recommendations for making lifelong learning accessible and relevant

In light of the findings and practices above, the following policy recommendations can help countries make lifelong learning accessible and relevant (Box 4.18).

Box 4.18. Policy recommendations: Making lifelong learning accessible and relevant
  • Put the needs of adults and employers at the centre of adult education and training design. Too often adult-learning programmes are modelled on those for children and youth, with little attention given to the unique needs of adults. Education and training providers should develop programmes adapted to adults’ time, financial and other constraints. Learning programmes should be modular and transferable, and curricula and teaching methods designed according to adults’ learning needs and styles.

  • Tailor learning to the original learning need and context. Adults typically learn more effectively and efficiently when the learning process is closely related to the place where the pressure to learn originates, which is most often the workplace. As a consequence, learning opportunities should be developed responsive to the world of work.

  • Address any gaps in adults’ foundation skills. Foundation skills are the building blocks for success in work and in life. Transversal skills such as literacy, numeracy, problem-solving skills, digital skills, creativity, etc. are critical for success in most aspects of work and life, including continuous learning. Schools and tertiary education should focus on developing these foundations first and foremost.

  • Harness technology to make learning more accessible and tailored. Technology is transforming not only the skills people need but how they learn. Open education, which offers time- and place-independent learning can be more flexible and sensitive to adults’ time constraints, and expand access to remote communities. ICT can facilitate personalised and adaptive learning, free up “class time” for exercises and facilitate interactions across locations. The use of big data for instruction and management has the potential to improve systems and processes. However, technology is not a panacea; privacy and other challenges must be overcome, and technology must be made to benefit disadvantaged groups. Policy makers and institutions should follow and improve the evidence on how to effectively harness ICTs for lifelong learning.

  • Ensure learning opportunities respond to changing skills needs in the economy and society. Skills needs are changing rapidly in the context of rapid technological change. This applies to high-level social and cognitive skills as well as job-specific skills. Training providers need to be attuned to changing skills needs by seeking employers’ input into programme design and by making use of skills assessment and anticipation information (see Chapter 5). They should also provide flexible learning opportunities that allow learners to move easily between programmes as demand changes. Highly specialised technical skills should be developed either within companies or in close collaboration with them to ensure that the skills meet their needs.


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