Executive summary

Flanders performs well compared to most OECD countries on most measures of skills development and use. The skills proficiency of Flemish adults exceeds the OECD average. High-performance work practices that stimulate the use of skills are widely adopted by firms. There are many good governance arrangements in place to support co-ordination and collaboration in adult learning across government departments, levels of government and with stakeholders. Financial incentives for adult learning help to reduce the burden for individuals and employers, promote cost-sharing and reduce under-investment. However, important challenges remain. Ensuring the continued success of Flanders in the future will depend on the policy choices Flanders makes today.

As the labour market tightens in Flanders, skills shortages are emerging. Shortages in professional, technical and scientific occupations persist due to a low number of graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Shortages are also evident in skills related to health services and education and training. Addressing these shortages is becoming all the more challenging due to a shrinking working-age population.

The shrinking working-age population is reducing the contribution of labour utilisation to economic growth. As a result, productivity growth will be an even more important driver of economic growth in the future. This will put more pressure on Flanders to ensure that more youth develop high levels of skills, that adults have opportunities to upgrade and update their skills, and that adults use their skills fully and effectively in workplaces.

At the same time, technological change is transforming workplaces and reshaping the skills requirements of jobs in the process. Recent OECD research based on the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) finds that sizable numbers of workers in Flanders are in jobs with a high risk of automation. Some of those jobs will disappear; others will see their tasks change significantly.

Flanders must foster a culture of lifelong learning to ensure that its people develop the skills to thrive in a world characterised by change. Strong foundational skills will make people more resilient to the changing skills demand, and digital skills and other 21st century skills – including critical thinking, communication skills, adaptability and accountability – will become even more relevant for adults to succeed in both work and life.

A comprehensive vision for adult learning that stimulates collaboration within government and with stakeholders is needed. Flanders already has an ambitious long-term vision for the future as articulated through “Vision 2050: a long-term strategy for Flanders,” which outlines Flanders’ plan to become an “inclusive, open, resilient and internationally connected region that creates prosperity and well-being for its citizens in a smart, innovative and sustainable manner.” The Flemish Social Economic Council (SERV) and the Flemish Education Council (VLOR) representing relevant stakeholders have also expressed their strong support and commitment for better skills outcomes in the long term.

OECD-Flanders collaboration on the OECD Skills Strategy project

The National Skills Strategy (NSS) Flanders project was launched during the high-level Skills Strategy Seminar in Brussels in January 2018 with the Flemish Minister and representatives from the Department of Work, Economy, Innovation and Sports, the Department of Education, the Social Economic Council and the European Commission.

Two workshops were held in May and September 2018 that convened a wide range of stakeholders, including unions, employers, sectoral training providers, education institutions, academics, and government representatives. Bilateral meetings with stakeholders and experts, as well as site visits, also took place. This process provided input and shaped the recommendations featured in this current report.

Improving adult skills is important for boosting growth and well-being in Flanders

The five topics identified as priorities by the OECD and the Government of Flanders are: 1) developing a learning culture; 2) reducing skills imbalances; 3) strengthening skills use in workplaces; 4) strengthening the governance of adult learning; and 5) improving the financing of adult learning.

Developing a learning culture

Fostering a learning culture and adult learning are priorities for Flanders, as identified in its Vision 2050. Participation in adult learning in Flanders is around average in comparison with other OECD countries. Certain groups that are most in need of upskilling or reskilling are falling behind, such as older workers, immigrants, those in flexible employment forms, and low-skilled adults. A strong learning culture is imperative, if Flanders wishes to ensure that all individuals are ready to upgrade their existing skills or acquire new skills to adapt to new challenges and opportunities and thrive in an increasingly complex world.

Reducing skills imbalances

Skills imbalances are costly for individuals, firms and the economy. Tight labour market conditions in Flanders have contributed to increasing shortage pressures in recent years, which are particularly acute in occupations related to professional, technical and scientific activities, information and communication technology (ICT), as well as skills related to health services and education. High shares of unfilled vacancies can be found in both high and medium-skilled occupations. Long-term unemployment remains high, and nearly half of the long-term unemployed have not obtained a secondary diploma. Reducing these skills imbalances could result in lowering hiring costs, increasing productivity, and improving the ability of firms to innovate and adopt new technologies.

Strengthening skills use in workplaces

Traditional skills policies focus on the supply side but there is increasing recognition of the need to work closer with firms to look at how skills are used in the workplace. Better skills use is associated with stronger wages and higher job satisfaction for individuals while firms benefit from increased productivity and decreased turnover. Individuals in Flanders tend to make good use of their literacy skills, while the use of numeracy skills in the workplace falls behind the OECD average. Skills use is often associated with the prevalence of high performance workplace practices (HPWPs). While HPWPs in Flanders is above the OECD average, more can be done to encourage firms to think critically about how they organise their workplaces, better link pay to the complexity of tasks in the workplace and generally engage employees in work organisation and training.

Strengthening the governance of adult learning

Strong governance is important for the effective functioning of the adult learning system. Co-ordination within government across ministries and levels of governments as well as with stakeholders is needed. Strong governance helps to minimise policy gaps and overlaps, improve the likelihood of successful policy implantation, leverage strengths, and generate policy complementarities. The Flemish Government has made clear in their Vision 2050 strategy that a whole-of-government approach involving all relevant ministries and levels of government, as well as the engagement of social partners, will be key in making this vision a reality.

Improving the financing of adult learning

A strong system of adult learning requires adequate financing, and this may become more urgent as automation and other global trends transform the skills needed in the labour market at an increasing pace. Flanders offers many financial incentives to help share the costs of adult learning between individuals, employers and government, as well as to steer adults towards training that is relevant to the labour market. However, there are concerns that financing for adult learning is not reaching the groups who could benefit most. For example, low-educated and older adults are under-represented in applying for career guidance and training vouchers, and low-educated adults are also less likely to benefit from employer-provided training.

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