1. Key insights and recommendations for Bulgaria

Skills are vital for enabling individuals and countries to thrive in an increasingly complex, interconnected and rapidly changing world. Countries in which people develop strong skills, learn throughout their lives, and use their skills fully and effectively at work and in society are more productive and innovative and enjoy higher levels of trust, better health outcomes and a higher quality of life.

As new technologies and megatrends increasingly shape our societies and economies, getting skills policies right becomes even more critical for ensuring societal well-being and promoting inclusive and sustainable growth. For Bulgaria, implementing a strategic approach to skills policies is essential, given the country’s exposure to demographic and digital disruptions and persistent inequalities among different social groups. The coronavirus (COVID)-19 crisis has accelerated the digitalisation of learning and work in Bulgaria and risks increasing inequalities in education and labour markets.

Against this backdrop, the Bulgarian Government is seeking to develop an Action Plan for Skills (the “National Skills Strategy”) that supports the country in developing and implementing a comprehensive set of skills policy actions. The present report provides comprehensive analysis and advice on Bulgaria’s skills policies and performance as a basis for developing a national action plan for skills.

In Bulgaria, as in other OECD countries, megatrends such as digitalisation, globalisation, demographic change and climate change are transforming learning systems and the world of work. To thrive in the world of tomorrow, people will need a stronger and more well-rounded set of skills. These include foundational skills; cognitive and meta-cognitive skills; social and emotional skills; and professional, technical and specialised knowledge and skills. Bulgaria will also need to make better use of people’s skills in the labour market and at work to realise the potential benefits of skills development.

The digital transformation continues to significantly impact all aspects of life in Bulgaria, including developing and using skills. Information and communications technologies (ICT), advances in artificial intelligence and robotics are profoundly changing the way people learn, work, communicate and live across OECD countries (OECD, 2019[1]). Although data on job automation in Bulgaria are scarce, one study estimated that a typical Bulgarian employee is more likely to be in a job that may be automated (68% probability) than the typical employee in any other European Union (EU) country (Pouliakas, 2018[2]). At the same time, Bulgarian workers seem to be unprepared to cope with the transformations brought by digitalisation. Bulgaria is the lowest-performing country in the European Union in terms of adult digital skills, with only 29% of its adult population having basic digital skills (see Figure 3.2 in Chapter 3 of this report). Furthermore, the COVID-19 crisis has required a sudden transition to remote working in many occupations, forcing enterprises and workers to rapidly increase their digital competencies. On the one hand, Bulgaria will need to support the creation of higher value-added jobs that are more resilient to automation. On the other hand, Bulgaria will need to provide lower-skilled workers with upskilling and reskilling opportunities to prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow.

Bulgaria’s high levels and evolving patterns of trade and integration into global value chains (GVCs) affect the skills required by the country’s workforce. Trade liberalisation has led to a more globalised world characterised by expanding supply chains and outsourcing certain forms of work (OECD, 2017[3]). Bulgarian imports and exports make up a relatively high share of its national gross domestic product (GDP), and the country has increased its involvement in GVCs in recent decades. Although Bulgaria’s trade and involvement in GVCs is mainly in manufacturing, business services have become increasingly important, including a dynamic computer and information services sector. In addition, the country has the potential to expand into higher value-added manufacturing (OECD, 2021[4]). These trends and opportunities will continue to influence the structure and competitiveness of Bulgaria’s economic sectors, which in turn will affect skills supply and demand in the labour market.

Population decline and ageing are deeply impacting the skills profile and needs of Bulgaria’s economy and society. Population ageing and low fertility rates have contributed to a shrinking population in Bulgaria, but emigration has been a particularly major challenge. The share of emigration in the demographic decline has increased: while emigration accounted for 32.3% of population loss between 2002 and 2011, its share increased to 40.7% between 2012 and 2021 (Karadjov and Gelovska, 2022[5]). Looking forward, Bulgaria’s population is expected to shrink by one-quarter from 2020 to 2050, representing the largest negative growth in population size in the world among countries with at least half a million people (United Nations, 2022[6]). The youngest population age groups (e.g. 20-34 year-olds) will decline the fastest (Figure 1.1, Panel A), leading to a shrinking working-age population (Figure 1.1, Panel B).

As the working-age population declines, so will labour utilisation, which will make economic growth more dependent on labour productivity improvements. Labour productivity growth in Bulgaria had caught up with its CEEC (Central and Eastern European Countries) peers in the most recent period (2010-19). However, compared to other CEEC, labour productivity in Bulgaria has been driven less by output per hour worked and more by growth in average hours worked. Labour productivity is also highly unequal across sectors in Bulgaria (OECD, 2021[4]). Developing and using skills effectively will be essential for achieving sustainable and inclusive labour productivity growth in Bulgaria.

The transition towards more environmentally sustainable goods and services will also affect the structure and skills needs of Bulgaria’s economy. As economies undergo this green transition, new jobs will be created, and some existing jobs will be transformed or eliminated (ILO, 2018[8]; Cristina Martinez-Fernandez, 2010[9]). Bulgaria’s economy remains relatively carbon- and energy-intensive, with state-subsidised coal-fired power plants producing almost half of the country’s energy. However, this is changing, with Bulgaria’s share of renewables in energy supply recently exceeding the OECD average (OECD, 2021[4]). As this transition continues, the challenge for Bulgarian policy makers is to transition away from high-carbon energy sources while reskilling workers for more sustainable and productive activities.

The megatrends of digitalisation, globalisation, demographic change and climate change make it even more complex for Bulgaria to achieve an equilibrium between skills demand and supply. Today, Bulgarian employers report that skills shortages are their major barrier to hiring (Ministry of Education and Science, 2019[10]). High-skilled occupations, such as those in manufacturing, communications and information technology, are already facing skills shortages. On the other hand, certain low-skilled occupations (e.g. agriculture and construction) are experiencing skills surpluses. Furthermore, over-qualification is common in Bulgaria, with only 53% of higher education graduates working in a position requiring tertiary education. The shrinking working-age population could exacerbate skills shortages as the supply of skills decreases.

Against this background, Bulgarians will increasingly need to upgrade their skills to perform new tasks in their existing jobs or acquire skills for new jobs. Strong foundational, digital, social and emotional skills, such as critical thinking, communication and adaptability, will become essential for them to be resilient to changing skills demands and succeed in both work and life.

In the last two decades, Bulgaria’s economic performance has converged towards EU and OECD levels, but recent crises have slowed convergence. After Bulgaria was severely hit by the 2008 global financial crisis, it experienced high production, employment and wage growth to 2019 (OECD, 2021[4]). However, the COVID-19 pandemic caused GDP to fall by 4.0% in 2020 and unemployment to peak at 5.3% in 2021, despite the government’s strong fiscal response to the crisis (OECD, 2022[11]). The economy rebounded strongly in 2021 (with GDP growth of 7.6%), and in 2022 employment reached its pre-pandemic levels (by July) and there was real wage growth despite very high inflation. Growth in 2022 was 3.4% and is projected to slow to 1.7% in 2023 due to the deteriorating macroeconomic situation in Europe, high energy prices and rising interest rates (OECD, 2022[11]).

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated other structural challenges. Inequalities have drastically risen over the last decade (indicated by an increase in the Gini coefficient). At the same time, poverty levels remain high, and the percentage of Bulgarians at risk of poverty increased in 2020, reaching 22.1% (versus an EU average of 16.8%) (Eurostat, 2023[12]). Poverty rates are particularly high among the Roma population, low-educated individuals, the elderly and people with disabilities, and are concentrated in peripheral regions. As in other countries, Bulgaria will need to implement targeted policies to prevent inequalities from rising further. The government has recently set ambitious goals to reduce inequalities and poverty, yet the results remain to be seen.

Bulgaria requires comprehensive and co-ordinated skills policies to respond to these challenges. In today’s rapidly changing world, people need stronger and more comprehensive sets of skills to perform new tasks in their jobs or to acquire new skills for new jobs. Strong foundational, transversal, social and emotional, and job-specific skills (Box 1.1) will make people more adaptable and resilient to changing skills demands and give them more opportunities to succeed in work and life. High-quality learning systems must equip young people with skills for work and life and give all adults opportunities to upskill and reskill over the life course. Adult skills need to be utilised to their potential in the labour market and at work. Finally, robust governance is needed to ensure a co-ordinated response to these challenges. Bulgaria’s Action Plan for Skills, the preparations for which began in 2022, will pave the way for such a comprehensive and co-ordinated approach to skills policy.

OECD Skills Strategy projects provide a strategic and comprehensive approach to assessing countries’ skills challenges and opportunities and building more effective skills systems. The OECD collaborates with countries to develop policy responses tailored to each country’s specific skills challenges and needs. The foundation of this approach is the OECD Skills Strategy Framework (Figure 1.2), the components of which are:

  • Developing relevant skills over the life course: To ensure that countries are able to adapt and thrive in a rapidly changing world, all people need access to opportunities to develop and maintain strong proficiency in a broad set of skills. This process is lifelong, starting in childhood and youth and continuing throughout adulthood. It is also “life-wide”, occurring both formally in schools and higher education, and non-formally and informally in the home, community and workplaces.

  • Using skills effectively in work and society: Developing a strong and broad set of skills is just the first step. To ensure that countries and people gain the full economic and social value from investments in developing skills, people also need opportunities, encouragement and incentives to use their skills fully and effectively at work and in society.

  • Strengthening the governance of skills systems: Success in developing and using relevant skills requires strong governance arrangements to promote co-ordination, co-operation and collaboration across the whole of government; engage stakeholders throughout the policy cycle; build integrated information systems; and align and co-ordinate financing arrangements. The OECD Skills Strategy project for Bulgaria adopted this approach by forming an interdepartmental project team to support the whole-of-government approach to skills policies and by engaging a broad variety of stakeholders.

The OECD Skills Strategy project for Bulgaria commenced with a virtual skills seminar for senior officials from various ministries in February 2022. Consultations were held in Bulgaria and on line in April to assess Bulgaria’s skills performance and again in June to develop recommendations for improving Bulgaria’s performance. The consultations involved bilateral meetings, expert group discussions and interactive stakeholder workshops. The consultations sought not only to enrich the report with local insights but also to develop a constructive dialogue and cultivate a shared understanding of Bulgaria’s skills challenges and opportunities as a basis for action. Overall, the OECD Skills Strategy project in Bulgaria engaged over 80 individuals who represented nearly 40 organisations, including ministries and agencies, municipalities, education providers, employers, workers, researchers and other sectors (hereafter referred to as “project participants”). This report is the main outcome of this engagement.

The OECD Skills Strategy Dashboard provides an overview of the relative performance of countries across the dimensions of the OECD Skills Strategy (Figure 1.3). For each dimension of the strategy, there are a number of indicators, some of which are composite indicators, which provide a snapshot of a country’s performance (see Annex 1.A for the indicators). For comparison purposes, Bulgaria’s relative skills performance is shown next to a range of European countries.

To ensure that countries are able to adapt and thrive in a rapidly changing world, all people need access to opportunities to develop and maintain strong proficiency in a broad set of skills. This process is lifelong and “life-wide”, occurring formally, non-formally and informally. Bulgaria could improve its performance in several areas of developing people’s skills (Figure 1.4).

In Bulgaria, participation in education is compulsory from pre-primary to lower secondary education (from the ages of 4 to 16). By 2020, participation in early childhood education was low and falling, especially for children from socio-economically vulnerable groups. However, this is expected to improve – after the starting age of compulsory pre-school education was lowered from 5 to 4 years in 2020. Early school leaving rates have declined since peaking in 2019 (from 14% to 12.2% in 2021). However, they remain above the EU average and are highest for rural students and ethnic minorities. The share of young adults (aged 25-34) in Bulgaria with tertiary education (33.6% in 2021) has not changed significantly over the last five years and remains well below the EU average (41.2%). In addition, individuals from rural areas and minority groups are under-represented in tertiary education.

Young people in Bulgaria have comparatively low levels of skills. Results from the OECD Programme for International Students Assessment (PISA) 2018 show that the performance of 15-year-old students in reading, mathematics and science is well below the EU average (Bulgaria scores last in the European Union in reading and science). Bulgaria is in the top 20% of EU countries for improving youth skills over time, because students’ mathematics performance increased significantly from 2006 to 2015. However, students’ performance in mathematics declined from 2015 to 2018, there has been no long-term improvement in students’ reading performance, and students’ science performance has declined. (OECD, 2019[1]) Students from vulnerable groups perform worse than other students, with performance gaps among the highest in the European Union.

Available data suggest that Bulgarian adults have low levels of skills and are not highly engaged in learning. For instance, only 11% of Bulgarian adults had above-basic digital skills in 2021, about one-third of the EU average. Despite having low skill levels, the share of Bulgarian adults who participate in education and training is the lowest in the European Union (about 1.8% in the four weeks prior to the survey conducted in 2021). Adults’ motivation to participate in learning is also the lowest in the European Union, and those who wish to participate face various barriers to doing so. On the other hand, the adult education system is relatively inclusive - Bulgaria is in the top 20% of EU countries because there are not large differences in participation between different groups of adults.

To ensure that countries gain the full economic and social benefits of investing in developing skills, people also need opportunities, encouragement and incentives to use their skills fully and effectively at work and in society. Bulgaria could also utilise people’s skills more effectively in workplaces and society (Figure 1.5).

Bulgaria’s performance in activating people’s skills in the labour market is mixed. On the one hand, the share of adults in employment is in line with EU averages and has increased over the last decade. In addition, the gender gap in employment is relatively low. On the other hand, some groups perform poorly in the labour market, inhibiting Bulgaria’s overall performance in activating skills. For example, despite improvements over the last decade, the share of youth not in employment, education or training (NEET) and the gap in employment between low- and high-educated adults remain among the largest in the European Union.

The skills that individuals supply to the labour market in Bulgaria are not closely aligned with the demands of the labour market. Bulgaria is facing widespread labour shortages (OECD, 2022[11]), with employer surveys showing that around 70% of employers face difficulties filling vacancies, well above previous levels (ManpowerGroup, 2021[13]). Skills shortages are common for medium- and high-skilled occupations (e.g. in manufacturing, communications and information technology). In contrast, skills surpluses are more common in low-skilled occupations (e.g. in agriculture and construction) (OECD, 2021[4]). Skills mismatches are also common in the Bulgarian labour market. For example, only a relatively low (albeit increasing) share of tertiary graduates (53%) work in a position requiring tertiary education (Ministry of Education and Science, 2021[14]).

Data suggest that adults in Bulgaria use their skills less frequently at work and in life than most adults in the European Union. Although data are limited, the European Working Conditions Survey 2015 (Eurofound, 2017[15]) showed that work intensity was lower in Bulgarian workplaces than in every EU country except Latvia. Over half of Bulgarian workers declare that they almost never use computers, laptops or smartphones at work. A more recent skills survey in selected high-carbon-emitting industries in Bulgaria showed a low intensity of using foundational cognitive skills (reading, writing and numeracy skills) at work (Hristova and Ferre, 2022[16]).

While not featured in the OECD Skills Strategy Dashboard, sound public governance of skills systems is contingent upon a government’s ability to co-ordinate, steer, monitor, communicate and work horizontally (across departments and institutions within government) and vertically (with local authorities and with external, public and private stakeholders) (OECD, 2019[1]). This both requires and contributes to integrated skills information systems, as well as aligned and co-ordinated skills financing arrangements.

In Bulgaria, ministries have several overlapping responsibilities and policies related to skills, and there is a lack of multilateral and bilateral co-ordination between them. While not limited to skills policy, the Bertelsmann Foundation’s 2022 Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) ranks Bulgaria’s performance in inter-ministerial co-ordination as 37th of 41 countries (Stanchev, Popova and Brusis, 2022[17]). This result reflects several factors. First, the official government office in Bulgaria, the Administration of the Council of Ministers, plays a mainly administrative role and has very limited capacity for in-depth evaluation of the policy content of line-ministry proposals. Second, while Bulgaria has numerous cross-cutting advisory councils involving ministers or other high-ranking officials, it does not have cabinet or ministerial committees to co-ordinate proposals for cabinet meetings. Third, some co-ordination of policy proposals by ministry officials and civil servants takes place, but ministries remain highly segmented and insulated, with limited inter-ministerial co-ordination by senior civil servants. Finally, vertical co-ordination with subnational actors (especially municipalities) is hampered by these actors’ limited capacity and the lack of a central institution to oversee the skills system and bring subnational actors to the table.

Stakeholders report fragmentation in their involvement in the skills policy-making process, although some stakeholder advisory bodies exist or are planned. The 2022 SGI ranks Bulgaria’s performance in societal consultation as 20th out of 41 countries (Stanchev, Popova and Brusis, 2022[17]). Various interests are represented and involved in consultations in the policy-making process. The National Council for Tripartite Co-operation is formally involved in many decisions, and its role has expanded to negotiating policies and adopting proposals that are later enacted in legislation. Overall, Bulgaria has more than 70 advisory councils at different levels of government, some of which cover skills topics. However, the influence of these councils on policy decisions is limited, and public consultations on policy proposals have often been short or altogether skipped. That said, government agencies are becoming more transparent about their deliberations, and in 2021, the government substantially increased the number of consultations.

Weak co-ordination between ministries has contributed to fragmented and inconsistent data and information collection, as well as a lack of evidence-based policy making. There are examples of good practice within different ministries and agencies on data collection, evaluation and analysis, e.g. the Ministry of Labour and Social Policies’ employment and sector forecasting exercises. However, data collection, evaluation and analysis on skills is not comprehensive or systematic, leading to a lack of evidence-based policy making overall.

Bulgaria’s overall performance in evidence-based policy making is not strong. The 2022 SGI ranks Bulgaria’s performance in both the quality of ex post policy evaluations and the utilisation of expert advice as 28th out of 41 countries (Stanchev, Popova and Brusis, 2022[17]). The rules for impact assessments in Bulgaria, established in 2016, require an ex post evaluation of policies and their effects within five years of implementation. However, by the end of 2021, only two evaluations had been published through the government’s public consultation portal. The government has various ways to consult stakeholders and experts, including a special online portal at the Council of Ministers, via advisory councils, and by public councils linked to specific ministries. In addition, representatives of academia and research institutes are usually included in the process on an ad hoc basis, and it is unclear if or how often experts' inputs lead to policy change.

Finally, public spending on skills is relatively low in Bulgaria. Total general government expenditure on all levels of education in Bulgaria was 4% of GDP in 2020, below the EU average of 5% (Eurostat, 2022[18]). Bulgaria’s expenditure was below the EU average at all levels of education (early childhood to tertiary) except early childhood. Although data are sparse, public funding appears low in adult education and training, as indicated by low participation and frequent reports of financial barriers to training by individuals and enterprises (see Chapter 3). Furthermore, spending on active labour market programmes for unemployed persons in Bulgaria (0.16% of GDP in 2019, excluding employment services and administration) is low compared to the EU average (0.39%). This expenditure is also focused on direct employment creation programmes rather than employment incentives and training measures, which tend to be more effective (OECD, 2022[19]). Funding of skills programmes is often highly reliant on European Social Funds, which can limit the continuity of programmes as funding periods end or priorities change. There are limited cost-sharing arrangements for skills policies across ministries and with social partners.

Bulgaria has already developed a range of key strategies (see Annex 1.B for a complete overview) to help the country positively influence megatrends, address the challenges and seize the opportunities facing its skills system. Relevant priorities and goals from these strategies are summarised at the beginning of each chapter to highlight their connection with the OECD’s assessment and recommendations. Importantly:

  • The National Development Programme “Bulgaria 2030” (България 2030) defines the vision of Bulgaria's future to 2030. It envisions a society with high living standards in which citizens are highly educated, creative and innovative and can enjoy diverse professional and personal opportunities. The first priority of the strategy focuses on education and skills. It aims to equip young people with the right skills for their future by providing a better-quality education, including by improving the quality of and increasing participation in lifelong learning.

  • The Strategic Framework for the Development of Education, Training and Learning (2021-2030) sets skills development priorities for the next decade. It aims to improve general education and vocational education and training (VET) by increasing its quality and making it more responsive to labour market needs. Priority 8 of the framework is dedicated specifically to lifelong learning. Separately, Bulgaria also has specific strategies for higher education and VET.

  • The National Strategy for Employment (2021-2030) outlines the main policy directions related to the use of skills in the labour market. It aims to increase employment and improve the quality of the labour force, focusing specifically on individuals from vulnerable groups and their opportunities to upskill and reskill throughout their lifetimes. The strategy is supported by annual Employment Action Plans that define policies to be carried out in a given year, in line with the Employment Strategy.

  • The National Reform Program 2022 includes skills-related measures in response to the findings of the European Commission’s Country Report for Bulgaria, and the Council of the European Union’s recommendations to ensure adequate social protection and essential services for all, strengthen active labour market policies, improve access to distance working, and promote digital skills and equal access to education.

  • Governance is mainly addressed in the National Development Programme, in which Priority 10, “Institutional Framework”, aims to increase the sustainability and quality of policies by increasing dialogue, partnerships with other stakeholders and evidence-based decision making. A small number of governance provisions can also be found in the Education Strategy (2021-2030).

The above-mentioned strategies provide only a sample of the most recent initiatives directly related to improving the development, activation and use of skills. Nonetheless, they indicate that the Bulgarian Government is actively working to address skills challenges. Reinforcing efforts in this direction, the Government has asked the OECD and the Directorate-General for Structural Reform Support (DG REFORM) of the European Commission to support Bulgaria from 2022 to 2024 to develop an action plan for a comprehensive set of skills policy actions. The present report is an important first step in this regard, as the assessment and recommendations will feed into the action plan to help Bulgaria improve its skills performance in the coming years.

Based on the OECD’s initial assessment of the performance of Bulgaria’s skills system and discussions with project participants, four priority areas across the three dimensions of the OECD Skills Strategy Framework were identified for this project. Over the course of the project, the OECD identified opportunities for improvement and developed recommendations in each priority area based on in-depth desk analysis and consultations with the Government of Bulgaria and stakeholder representatives. Figure 1.6 depicts these priority areas and opportunities for improvement.

The summaries below highlight the key findings and recommendations for each priority area, while subsequent chapters of the full report provide more details in these areas.

Ensuring that young people develop the skills, knowledge, values and attitudes needed to thrive in an interconnected world is vital for the general well-being of Bulgaria. The importance of youth developing a broad range of relevant skills is growing in the country, especially as Bulgaria faces a shrinking labour force linked to population ageing and high levels of emigration. Such a scenario puts extra pressure on the country’s education system to ensure its youth develop the skills needed to ensure their smooth transition into employment and, at the same time, respond effectively to the skills needs of the labour market.

Bulgaria continues to struggle with low levels of performance in its student population. In particular, while Bulgarian students do relatively well at learning the knowledge taught in school curricula during initial education, students appear to struggle to apply their knowledge in real-world settings. Furthermore, within Bulgaria, gaps in learning outcomes between different student populations are a major concern, and Bulgaria has not managed to reduce these gaps over time.

On top of these challenges, and despite recent reforms, there are concerns about the quality of recent teaching graduates in Bulgaria and their readiness for the profession. Evidence shows that teacher candidates’ grades are below the average of students in other higher education programmes and that Bulgaria’s continuous professional development (CPD) system is fragmented and lacks quality control. The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted teachers’ limited skills and resources to support students.

Another concern that needs to be addressed in Bulgaria is the responsiveness of VET and higher education to labour market needs. While employers in Bulgaria face challenges in finding the skills they need, vocational and higher education are not consistently equipping youth with strong transversal cognitive and practical skills to meet these needs. Successfully equipping young people with skills for work and life should positively affect their employment outcomes and reduce skills mismatches.

Successfully designing and implementing modern school curricula are essential for equipping students with the skills needed for success in work and life. Bulgaria initiated a major curriculum reform in 2016 with the goal of establishing a competency-based education model. However, the country is struggling to implement the curriculum reform, in part due to a lack of awareness and capacity among practitioners. Several project participants stated that Bulgaria lacks a clear and shared vision of the curriculum reform and its benefits, apart from a detailed action plan with defined roles, responsibilities and actionable measures. Furthermore, training, support and capacity building for teachers to implement the competency-based curriculum in classrooms has been insufficient and inconsistent across regions, despite the availability of methodological support for this purpose. Moreover, the move to a competency-based curriculum requires modernising assessment practices in Bulgaria. To align with the new curriculum, national external assessment tools need to be reformed to monitor students’ acquisition of diverse and higher-order competencies. The results of assessments should be used to monitor the implementation of the competency-based curriculum and students’ progress against national learning standards, guiding system improvement over time.

Ensuring youth achieve higher skill levels depends on empowered, trained and motivated teachers. Despite recently introduced policies to build teacher capacity, the quality of teacher candidates and their readiness to enter the profession remain challenges for Bulgaria’s education system. Initial teacher education (ITE) admission processes do not set minimum academic requirements or systematically assess candidates’ broader competencies and motivations. Practical learning and exposure to different teaching practices during ITE are limited, hampering the classroom readiness of young teachers. Ensuring relevant and high-quality CPD opportunities for teachers is also critical for Bulgaria’s efforts to develop a highly skilled teaching workforce that can improve the skills of young people. Like most OECD and European countries, Bulgaria has made CPD mandatory for teachers, but the quality and relevance of teachers’ CPD could be improved. Despite high participation, the CPD system in Bulgaria is not based on a robust assessment of teachers’ training needs. In addition, ex ante (pre-training) quality assurance of CPD programmes and providers is limited, and Bulgaria lacks a systematic approach for ex post (post-training) quality assurance of CPD to ensure the desired outcomes of CPD are being achieved.

Increasing the responsiveness of vocational and higher education to current and anticipated labour market needs benefits students, employers and the economy as a whole. Currently, Bulgarian employers have difficulty finding workers with the right set of skills. Greater involvement of employers and other local actors in initial VET could improve the relevance of VET graduates’ skills to employers’ needs. However, in Bulgaria, stakeholder engagement in VET is not systematic at the subnational level, which is important given that skills needs vary significantly across the regions. Collaboration between schools and employers can be improved by promoting greater work-based learning during initial VET through increased financial and non-financial support to employers and students. Furthermore, Bulgaria has limited tracking of higher education student outcomes, and higher education institutions struggle to make use of the available data. Public funding of higher education institutions could be used to create stronger incentives for institutions to offer programmes and curricula that align with labour market needs. Finally, youth from disadvantaged backgrounds have limited access to and success in higher education in Bulgaria. They require greater financial and non-financial support to succeed in higher education institutions, particularly when studying in fields that are considered national priorities.

Strengthening adult skills can benefit Bulgaria in both the short and long term. In the short term, improving adult skills through ongoing education and training can help to address current skills shortages in many sectors. Equally, it can help Bulgaria recover from the economic shocks of the COVID-19 crisis and, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, both of which have slowed the growth of the Bulgarian economy (OECD, 2022[20]). In the long term, improving adult education and training, and subsequently, adult skills, can help Bulgaria prepare for shifting skills demands and improve labour productivity, boosting the Bulgarian economy.

The participation in adult education and training in Bulgaria is the lowest in the European Union. Low participation is driven by an especially low motivation to engage in lifelong learning, with a much higher percentage of adults in Bulgaria not participating and not wanting to participate in education and training than in the European Union on average. Furthermore, despite evidence of low skill levels among adults in Bulgaria, Bulgaria has the highest share in the European Union of adults responding that they do not participate in adult education and training because there is “no need”.

Even adults and employers in Bulgaria who are motivated and want to participate in adult learning face a number of barriers to doing so, most notably time and financial constraints. Scheduling and cost barriers are substantially greater in Bulgaria than in the European Union on average for both adults and employers. Project participants emphasised the need for greater flexibility and accessibility to help a wider range of adults fit learning into their work and personal schedules.

Regarding the quality and relevance of adult education and training, adults in Bulgaria are more likely to cite the lack of a suitable offer for education and training as a barrier to participating than in the European Union on average. Project participants also noted a lack of mechanisms for evaluating and improving the quality of adult education, training options and instructors as a barrier to raising adult skill levels in Bulgaria.

Adults and employers are more likely to feel motivated to participate in upskilling and reskilling activities if they are aware of the general benefits of lifelong learning and believe that participating in these activities will benefit them and lead to desired outcomes. During consultations, project participants cited low motivation as one of the primary challenges that needs to be addressed to improve adult skills in Bulgaria. Low motivation among individuals and employers can be boosted by better guidance and support. However, Bulgaria’s current infrastructure for adult career guidance is substantially underdeveloped and underfunded. Similarly, evidence shows that employers in Bulgaria do not often assess their future skills needs, and there is a lack of guidance and support to help them do so. Assessment of training needs is even more difficult for smaller enterprises. Both individuals and employers in Bulgaria also lack financial motivation to improve adult skills. Bulgaria’s existing financial incentives for adult learners appear to be insufficient for improving adult learning rates and do not successfully account for greater challenges faced by vulnerable groups. Employers in Bulgaria also face significant cost barriers to providing or supporting adult education and training for their employees, which are particularly acute for smaller-sized enterprises.

Improving the flexibility and accessibility of adult education and training provision is crucial to improving the participation of adults in lifelong learning. International evidence supports this, suggesting that flexibility in format and design (e.g. part-time, online, non-formal, micro-credentials) can help overcome time- and distance-related barriers (OECD, 2019[21]). Thus, flexibility is particularly important in Bulgaria, where schedule and distance are among the main barriers cited by individuals who want to but do not participate in adult learning. While Bulgaria currently has some flexible learning opportunities for adults, most notably partial qualification courses, these courses are not optimal for flexible adult learning because of their current funding, recognition and quality assurance mechanisms. Furthermore, adult learning that is flexible to the needs of employers is limited in Bulgaria by barriers to employers providing training in the workplace and/or during work hours. In addition, while shortening and simplifying learning pathways through the recognition of prior learning (RPL) can improve adult skills and participation in adult learning, the take-up of RPL remains low in Bulgaria. At the same time, while participation in adult upskilling and reskilling is generally low in Bulgaria, it lags even further behind for low-skilled adults. Easing access to basic education for adults can make adult learning more accessible to a wider range of individuals, encouraging greater participation.

An extremely important aspect of making adult learning attractive to adults in Bulgaria is ensuring that adult learning opportunities are of high quality and teaching skills relevant to Bulgaria’s current and future labour market. It is difficult to assess the quality of adult learning opportunities in Bulgaria due to a lack of relevant evidence for doing so, but there are indications that the quality is not particularly high. Ex ante quality assurance needs to be strengthened, and ex post quality assurance mechanisms need to be put in place in Bulgaria. While there are indications that the quality of teaching by adult learning trainers could be improved, Bulgaria lacks plans to address the low qualifications and capabilities of adult education trainers. In addition to challenges related to quality, low participation in adult learning in Bulgaria may be related to the perception that adult learning is not relevant to the needs of learners and employers. Adult learning opportunities in Bulgaria can be made more relevant by involving employers in designing adult education and training programmes, a practice that is not very prevalent in Bulgaria. Furthermore, the system currently in place to promote study in fields of national strategic importance in initial education is not sufficiently extended to adult learning.

The benefits of developing skills will be maximised only if policies also support people to supply their skills in the labour market and use them effectively at work. This entails using skills in various dimensions – activating the skills of Bulgaria’s working-age population, utilising the skills of return migrants and skilled immigrants and utilising workers’ skills effectively at work.

Better activating the skills of vulnerable groups in Bulgaria’s labour market will be essential for improving overall skills use in the labour market. The majority of Bulgaria’s unemployed or inactive adults are from often overlapping, vulnerable groups. Out-of-work adults from these vulnerable groups require proactive, tailored and high-quality services from the public employment service, in close and efficient co-operation with other relevant stakeholders due to the myriad barriers to employment they face.

Making the most of skills and minimising skills imbalances in Bulgaria’s economy also require effective policies to foster the return emigration of Bulgarian nationals and the skilled immigration of foreign nationals. High emigration rates in Bulgaria have shrunk the labour force and contributed to chronic labour shortages in the country. Return migration can bring positive effects as emigrants acquire new experiences and values, develop new networks and learn new skills while working abroad. Likewise, foreign skilled immigrants can bring similar benefits, especially for priority sectors and those facing shortages.

Realising the benefits of skills development also requires policies to ensure that workers’ skills are used effectively at work. A higher intensity of skills use at work is associated with higher job satisfaction, wages and productivity for workers, and higher output and innovation for employers. The organisation of workplaces is arguably the most important determinant of skills use. Practices known to positively affect the performance of employees and businesses are referred to as high-performance workplace practices (HPWPs). These include work flexibility and autonomy, teamwork and information sharing, training and development, career progression and performance management.

Activating the skills of adults from vulnerable groups requires connecting more of them to Bulgaria’s National Employment Agency (NEA). However, unemployed and inactive adults from vulnerable groups do not currently have strong incentives to register with Bulgaria’s public employment service. While Bulgaria’s outreach efforts to unemployed and inactive adults from vulnerable groups appear to be insufficient, Bulgaria lacks evidence on the efficacy of these efforts to determine whether some should be expanded or ceased. Once in contact with the NEA, unemployed adults from vulnerable groups need intensive and tailored support to activate their skills in the labour market. Unemployed adults from vulnerable groups tend to receive less attention from Bulgaria’s NEA caseworkers than other unemployed adults, in part reflecting caseworkers’ high workloads and outdated client-profiling tools. Most of Bulgaria’s unemployed adults from vulnerable groups have low levels of skills and education and so need to upskill or reskill in order to gain stable employment. However, investments in training for unemployed adults in Bulgaria are relatively low and volatile, and few unemployed adults from vulnerable groups receive training under active labour market policies.

A major challenge and opportunity for using skills in Bulgaria’s labour market and reducing skills imbalances is migration. High emigration and low return emigration, as well as low levels of skilled immigration of EU citizens and third-country nationals (TCNs), have limited Bulgaria’s ability to use people’s skills and address skills shortages. The first step towards fostering return emigration and skilled immigration is to make them a high priority in the national policy agenda. However, Bulgaria lacks cross-cutting and consistent buy-in for fostering return emigration and skilled immigration. Existing strategies do not set a clear, compelling vision and plan for fostering return emigration and skilled immigration. The public bodies with formal responsibilities for immigration have limited initiatives and co-ordination mechanisms to this end. A second step towards fostering return emigration and skilled immigration for Bulgaria is to develop effective policy measures and services targeting potential and arrived return emigrants and skilled immigrants. Bulgaria lacks outreach and communications measures for potential return emigrants and skilled immigrants. Return emigrants face some challenges integrating into Bulgaria’s local labour market, and the same appears true of skilled immigrants. TCNs’ access to Bulgaria’s labour market has improved, but this has not clearly translated into higher skilled immigration or better employment outcomes. Bulgaria lacks support measures to help return emigrants and skilled immigrants successfully (re-)integrate into the labour market, or to adjust to other aspects of life in Bulgaria, such as schooling, healthcare and taxation, among others.

A country can successfully develop, activate and attract skills but fail to realise the full benefits of those skills if they are not used effectively at work. Indeed, some project participants argued that employers would need to better utilise workers’ skills for the country to fully benefit from skills. Bulgaria will need to raise awareness of skills use in workplaces and HPWPs through inclusion in national, regional and sectoral strategies, as well as the dissemination of knowledge and good practices on HPWPs through targeted campaigns and centralised online information. Bulgarian strategies and policies tend not to give attention to skills use and HPWPs in workplaces. There also appears to be a limited understanding of the importance and concepts of skills use and HPWPs among policy makers and enterprises in Bulgaria. Project participants confirmed that small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) lack the capacity to modernise workplace practices, such as HPWPs, and likely require targeted support to do so. Bulgaria lacks measures to support enterprises in adopting HPWPs. Bulgaria could potentially build on certain existing programmes and adapt good practices from other countries to support enterprises in adopting HPWPs.

A wide range of actors in Bulgaria have an interest in and influence the success of policies to develop and use people’s skills. They include ministries of the central government, subnational authorities, education and training institutions, workers and trade unions, employers and their associations, civil society organisations and others. As a result, governing skills policies can be complex and multi-faceted, requiring co-ordination between a wide variety of institutions in policy design and delivery, financing, reform and day-to-day administration. Good governance is an enabling condition for successful skills policies and involves effective whole-of-government co-ordination, stakeholder engagement, integrated information systems and co-ordinated financing arrangements.

A whole-of-government approach includes horizontal co-ordination between different ministries of government with a stake in skills policy, as well as vertical co-ordination between different levels of government (such as the municipal level, the regional level and the central government). Such an approach can prevent overlaps and gaps in skills policies and ensure that authorities and policies are working together coherently towards complementary goals. Stakeholder engagement can occur during policy design, implementation and evaluation, and ranges from stakeholders voicing their interests or concerns to taking responsibility for implementing skills policies. Effective engagement can provide important intelligence for policy makers and build stakeholders’ buy-in, all of which help to ensure the success of skills policies.

To cope with the inherent complexity and uncertainty of skills investments, integrated information systems on skills needs and outcomes are necessary for actors in the skills system. Such systems help the government to develop evidence-based skills policies; learning institutions to provide relevant and responsive courses; employers to plan hiring and training; and individuals to make informed learning and career decisions. Finally, aligning and co-ordinating skills financing arrangements involves responsible ministries allocating public funding for skills in a coherent way that minimises gaps and overlaps and maximises impacts. This includes ensuring sufficient funding for each stage of learning over the life course. Co-ordinated financing also involves leveraging funding from supra-national sources (such as the European Union) and private sources (employers, workers and their representatives) to ensure that beneficiaries pay according to their capacity and that skills funding is sustainable in the long term.

At the national level, there is a need to better co-ordinate different ministries and agencies, as existing arrangements such as the Council of Ministers and ad hoc bilateral arrangements are insufficient to ensure a whole-of-government approach to skills. Bulgaria lacks an overarching skills body to lead and oversee the skills system and to manage and co-ordinate different actors, institutions and strategies, including those currently planned at sector and local levels. Bilateral and multilateral relationships between ministries, agencies and municipalities in the area of skills policy could be strengthened. Currently, Bulgaria lacks co-ordination mechanisms like memoranda of understanding, joint policy projects and delivery teams, partnership agreements, etc., to strengthen co-operation on skills. Beyond government, project participants reported fragmentation in the involvement of stakeholders in Bulgaria’s skills system. Existing advisory bodies, such as the Consultative Council for VET and the planned sectoral skills councils, have the potential to facilitate effective stakeholder engagement but are currently limited in their scope and do not take a skills-system-wide perspective. In addition, employers, trade unions, providers and subnational actors should be more systematically engaged and involved during policy design and implementation, including piloting initiatives and data collection and analysis.

Project participants expressed concerns that Bulgaria lacks high-quality information on skills needs in the labour market and on how well the government’s various skills policies and programmes are working. Bulgaria’s skills assessment and anticipation (SAA) includes numerous activities, such as quantitative forecasts, assessments of workforce skillsets and needs, surveys of employers and sectoral studies. However, the generated information sometimes lacks detail or relevance for end-users, such as education and training providers seeking to update their programmes or counsellors seeking to provide advice and guidance to learners and workers. Furthermore, the results of SAA activities are not systematically used by the ministries involved in skills policy. There is also a lack of monitoring and evaluation of education, training and labour market programmes, which hinders Bulgaria’s understanding of what is working and how best to direct public finances. Authorities often lack the capacity to systematically undertake high-quality analysis and evaluations of skills policies and do not utilise the capacity of experts to their potential.

There are four principal funding sources for education and training in Bulgaria: the state budget, European Structural and Investment Funds, employers and learners. In 2019, public expenditure on formal education per student in Bulgaria was below the EU average at all levels of education, from early childhood to tertiary education, even after adjusting for differences in purchasing power between countries. While secondary VET is state-funded at a higher rate per student than general education, VET centres and continuing VET for adults are mostly private, and training is often self-funded by learners, employers, or, in some cases, through EU funding. As noted earlier, public funding for adult learning and training active labour market policies for unemployed persons also appears low and not well-targeted in some instances. In addition, Bulgaria currently lacks a clearly defined and sustainable financing model and principles for sharing the costs of skills development between the state, employers and individuals. More robust and ongoing evaluation of existing spending across the skills system could enable the government to allocate – or reallocate – funding to those activities where there is the most return on investment.


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This annex presents the OECD Skills Strategy Dashboard, which presents the performance of skills systems in OECD countries. It is the starting point for analysis in the diagnostic phase of Skills Strategy projects and allows the OECD and a country project team to identify the priority skills policy themes to be covered in greater detail. Presenting the relative position of countries on key skills outcomes, the dashboard provides a general overview of the strengths and weaknesses of a given country or region’s skills system. This annex describes the characteristics, presents the indicators and describes the underlying methods for calculating the indicators.

The OECD Skills Strategy Dashboard for Bulgaria is the result of internal consultation and analysis of core indicators used in OECD Skills Strategy projects. It presents a simple, intuitive overview of the outcomes of skills systems that is easy to interpret. It provides a quick overview of Bulgaria’s skills performance across the dimensions of the OECD Skills Strategy (“developing relevant skills” and “putting skills to effective use”). The dashboard applies a broad definition of skills by presenting foundational skills, problem-solving skills and breadth of skillsets, and considers both economic and social outcomes. A total of 33 key outcome indicators were selected and grouped into 16 aggregated indicators.

The selection of indicators followed a process whereby a longlist of the most commonly used indicators in OECD Skills Strategy reports was gradually reduced to a shortlist of core indicators. This process built on the principle that the indicators describe the core outcomes of the different dimensions of the skills system. In addition, these indicators express outcomes in terms of level, trend, distribution and equity. The indicators need to be comparatively easy to interpret and based on OECD sources, using the most recently available.

To develop aggregate indicators that represent the relative position of countries on key outcomes of the skills system, a number of calculations were made on the collected data. To describe the relative position across countries, a score for each indicator was calculated ranging from 0 to 10, with 0 for the weakest performance and 10 for the strongest performance. This resulted in an indicator that allows comparisons between different types of indicators (e.g. averaging the performance of literacy scores and educational attainment rates). The resulting scores were normalised in such a way that better performance results in a higher score. Subsequently, an unweighted average of the indicators was calculated for each of the aggregates, and these scores were then ranked. The final ranking was separated into five groups of equal size, ranging from “Top 20% performer” to “Bottom 20% performer”. Aggregate indicators are only presented in the dashboard when more than half of the underlying indicators have data available.

This annex presents the OECD’s full policy recommendations for Bulgaria arising from this project. These recommendations and the analysis, evidence and international examples that support them can be found in Chapters 2-5.

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