6. Engaging adults with low skills

It is a well-established phenomenon that adults with low skills are less likely to participate in learning than higher-skilled individuals (see Box 6.1). Those who already have higher skills and qualifications when entering the labour market tend to acquire even more over the life-course, thereby widening the gap that already exists at the end of initial education (Boeren, 2009[1]; Kilpi-Jakonen et al., 2014[2]). Germany displays particularly large differences in learning participation between adults with low and higher levels of basic skills. The country has one of the largest participation gaps between these groups among OECD countries, exceeded only by Chile, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands. Analysing participation rates of adults by different qualification levels paints a similar picture.

Engaging low-skilled adults in learning is key for ensuring their societal and economic inclusion, the innovativeness and competitiveness of enterprises, and the health of the economy as a whole (Woessmann, 2016[3]). While employment rates of adults with low skills have increased over the past decade in Germany thanks to economic growth, a tightening labour market and an expansion of non-standard work, this trajectory may not continue. In the short term, the economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis is likely to worsen the labour market chances of this group. In the medium to long term, digitalisation and automation will significantly change many of the jobs held by low-skilled adults, or displace them entirely. Occupations that require no or low levels of education have the highest risk of being automated, according to OECD analysis (Nedelkoska and Quintini, 2018[4]). Across OECD countries, policy-makers are keen on finding ways to engage more adults with low skills in learning.

This chapter analyses the learning participation of low-skilled adults in Germany. It first presents data on the share of low-skilled adults to illustrate the size of the issue. Then, it exhibits data on CET participation by low-skilled adults in international comparison, before discussing the specific barriers to participation experienced by this group. Finally, it sketches the learning opportunities available to adults with low skills. Based on this analysis, it presents recommendations.

The share of low-skilled adults in Germany is lower than the OECD average, yet this group represents a significant part of the German population. The majority of low-skilled adults in Germany is in employment, as labour market opportunities for this group have increased in line with economic growth in the past 15 years. The effects of the COVID-19 crisis on the employment opportunities of this group remain to be seen.

PIAAC data suggest that 19% of adults in Germany have low basic skills (low skills in numeracy, literacy or both), which is equivalent to 8.2 million adults (Figure 6.1, Panel A). This share is below the OECD average of 24%, but still significantly higher than the share in the best performing countries by this indicator. It is worth noting that the latest PIAAC data refer to 2012/2015 and a new wave of data will be collected in 2022/2023. It is likely that the share of low-skilled adults has decreased since the last data collection, as PIAAC data show that skill levels are increasing through higher skilled young people replacing relatively lower skilled older cohorts (OECD, 2013[6]).

In Germany, PIAAC data are complemented by the LEO survey on literacy skills, implemented by the University of Hamburg (see Chapter 2). It finds that in 2018, 12% of the German-speaking adult population were found to have a low level of proficiency in reading and writing (Alpha Levels 1-3), which is equivalent to around 6.2 million adults (Grotlüschen et al., 2019[7]). This share is lower than the share of adults with low literacy identified through PIAAC, due to LEO capturing adults with lower levels of literacy (Durda et al., 2020[8]).

Data on adults with low qualifications show that in 2019, 13% of adults in Germany were low-qualified, compared to a much higher OECD average of 21% (Figure 6.1, Panel B). Austria and Switzerland, which have dual vocational training systems comparable to Germany, display similar rates (14% and 11% respectively). It is worth noting that in the past two decades, the share of low-qualified adults in Germany decreased from 18% to 13%, mainly driven by increasing educational levels among women (Box 6.2). In the same period, the share of adults with a higher education qualification increased from 24% to 30%. The share of adults holding medium levels of qualification has been relatively stable since 2000.

Groups of adults with low basic skills and those with low qualifications are not identical. This is due to the fact that the formal education system is not the only place where adults develop literacy and numeracy skills (OECD, 2013[6]). Low-qualified adults may have good levels of basic skills, not only because they gained some skills in the education and training systems, but also because people can acquire or improve these skills in their work or social life. Vice versa, some adults with medium or high level of qualifications may actually display low basic skills, for example due to skill depreciation over the life-course.

In Germany, most adults with low qualification levels are active in the labour market. Their employment rate has steadily increased in the past 15 years from 49% in 2004 to 62% in 2019 (Figure 6.3). Further, low-qualified adults in Germany now have higher employment rates than low-qualified adults in OECD countries (59%). Employment growth amongst adults with low qualifications is far exceeding the employment growth seen by higher-qualified adults. This increase is largely thanks to overall employment growth in Germany, an increasingly tight labour market and associated labour shortages (see Chapter 2), but also due to more low-skilled working in atypical forms of employment, such as temporary work, work on fixed-term contracts or in marginal employment. Low-skilled women in particular, who generally have above-average levels of permanent inactivity, have experienced increasingly turbulent and unstable employment histories (Eichhorst et al., 2019[9]). Effects of the COVID-19 crisis on the labour market in general and the employment opportunities of low-skilled adults in particular remain to be seen.

Taking a more detailed look at the labour market status shows that while 62% of low-qualified adults were employed in 2019, 33% were inactive in the labour market and 5% were unemployed (Figure 6.4). The level of labour market inactivity is slightly below the OECD average of 35%, although a number of countries achieve substantially lower rates of inactivity among the low-qualified, most notably Iceland (21%) and Sweden (22%), but also Switzerland (25%). Labour market inactivity may be due to participation in education and training, being retired or having care duties among other factors. The employment status of individuals has important consequences for where and how adults can be reached to engage them in CET. As the vast majority of low-skilled adults is in work, creating learning opportunities in the work-place is key to engaging them.

No recent data on the employment situation of adults with low basic skills exist. When data were collected for the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) in Germany in 2012, 62% of adults with low basic skills were employed, 31% were inactive in the labour market and 7% were unemployed. This compared to 85%, 12% and 3% respectively for medium- to high-skilled adults.

Across OECD countries, adults with low skills are less likely to take part in CET compared to their higher-skilled counterparts. Those who already have high skills and qualifications when entering the labour market acquire even more over the life-course. This phenomenon has been coined the Matthew effect of accumulated advantage in education (Boeren, 2009[1]; Kilpi-Jakonen et al., 2014[2]). While the insight that low-skilled adults are less likely to participate in CET is not new, ongoing changes in the world of work are limiting the labour market opportunities for low-skilled adults and increasing their need for reskilling and upskilling (see Chapter 2).

In Germany, only 23% of adults with low basic skills participate in job-related CET in a given year, compared to 51% of those with medium to higher levels of basic skills (Figure 6.5, Panel A). This is one of the largest percentage-point gaps among OECD countries, exceeded only by Chile, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands. By contrast, New Zealand and Norway manage to engage comparatively high shares of adults with low skills in learning (40% and 39%) while also ensuring high overall participation levels.

Shifting the focus to participation by qualification level paints a similar picture. In Germany, 27% low-qualified adults participate in CET in a given year, compared to 55% of those with medium or high qualifications. However, gaps in many European OECD economies are even larger than this, including in countries with similar education and training systems, such as Austria (31% vs. 65%), the Netherlands (38% vs. 72%) and Switzerland (35% vs. 74%). A number of Nordic countries with high-performing CET systems, namely Finland, Norway and Sweden manage to combine high overall participation with relatively small differences in participation between low- and medium/high-qualified individuals.

Analysing the learning participation of adults with low basic skills in more detail shows that their participation rates are proportionally lower in all types of learning that is formal, non-formal and informal learning (Figure 6.6). According to PIAAC data, 4% of adults with low basic skills take part in formal learning in Germany, compared to 7% of adults with higher skill levels. The relative difference in participation in non-formal learning opportunities is even larger, with 20% of adults with low basic skills participating and 49% of those with medium to high skill levels.

Similarly, low-qualified adults display lower participation in all types of learning. According to 2016 AES data, 2% take part in formal, 27% in non-formal and 27% in informal learning. Amongst those with medium qualifications, 3% take part in formal, 47% in non-formal and 39% in informal learning; amongst those with high qualifications 5% take part in formal, 67% in non-formal and 59% in informal learning. Notably, adults with low qualification levels take part in non-formal and informal learning to an equal extent, which is not the case for medium and higher qualified adults. This may reflect the type of workplaces low-skilled adults find themselves in and their higher propensity of these workplaces to offer informal compared to other learning opportunities, i.e. micro and small enterprises (see below). It may also reflect a preference by low-skilled individuals and their employers to engage in less formalised types of learning.

To design effective policies that engage more low-skilled adults in learning, it is key to understand what their barriers to participation are and how these differ from those experienced by their higher skilled counterparts. Many of these barriers relate to the individual and labour market situation of low-skilled adults, which shape their attitudes, expectations and possibilities to take-up CET.

Adults with low skills face multiple, multi-layered and interconnected barriers to participation. Some of these barriers are explicit, such as a lack of time due to care responsibilities, while others may just be expressed as a general lack of interest in taking part. The academic literature on adult learning typically distinguishes between dispositional, situational and institutional barriers (Cross, 1992[10]; Pennacchia, Jones and Aldridge, 2018[11]; Roosmaa and Saar, 2017[12]):

  • Dispositional barriers refer to adults’ attitudes, personality traits, perceptions and expectations around learning. Examples for this type of barrier include lack of interest, concerns about one’s ability to succeed, having no hope of improving one’s labour market chances, and the perception that one has learnt enough already or is too old to acquire new skills. Dispositional barriers can be grounded in innate personality traits as well as prior experiences with education and training that shaped the individual’s view.

  • Situational barriers pertain mostly to the personal and family situation of the individual. This includes their financial situation, existence of care responsibilities, lack of family or employer support and lack of time due to work commitments, among other factors.

  • Institutional barriers relate to the availability, or lack thereof, of appropriate learning opportunities. This includes a lack of flexibility in the available provision concerning time and location, as well as a lack of relevant learning opportunities tailored to the specific learning needs (e.g. specific andragogic approaches).

Research by the German Institute for Employment Research (IAB) suggests that, on average, low-qualified adults face a larger number of barriers to participation than those with higher qualifications. A 2017 survey of employees showed that while adults with university degrees named one barrier to learning participation on average, low-qualified adults named close to three (Osiander and Stephan, 2018[13]; Osiander and Stephan, 2018[14]). An earlier similar survey of unemployed individuals came to similar conclusions, with a higher number of barriers named by those with lower qualification levels (Osiander and Dietz, 2016[15]).

Looking at dispositional barriers, the vast majority of adults with low basic skills does not participate in CET and there were no learning opportunities that they wanted to participate in, according to PIAAC data (Figure 6.7). A much smaller share does not participate in CET, but would have liked to (11%). This incidence is average by international standards. In most OECD countries, more than 50% of adults with low basic skills are not interested in CET participation. The exception is New Zealand, where only 39% have no interest in participation, but a further 20% who do not participate would have liked to. At the other end of the spectrum is the Slovak Republic, where close to 90% of adults with low basic skills do not participate and are not interested in participation. By comparison, only 41% of German adults with medium to higher skill levels do not participate in learning and report that there was no CET course they wanted to attend (not displayed in the Figure).

National data complement this picture on the higher dispositional barriers of low-skilled adults: A 2017 survey by the IAB found that employees with low qualification levels are more likely than their higher-qualified peers to think that they are sufficiently qualified and that they have learnt enough (Osiander and Stephan, 2018[13]). One in three low-qualified respondents to the survey thought their qualifications were sufficient (“Meine Qualifikationen reichen aus”), compared to one in four of adults with Master’s degrees or higher. Similarly, 29% of low-qualified employees thought that they had learnt enough (“Ich habe genug gelernt”) compared to 11% of those with Master’s degrees or higher.

It is worth highlighting that the lack of interest in participating in CET is closely connected to the characteristics of this group and their situational and institutional barriers to participation (see below). The real issue for this group may not be a lack of interest, but discouragement due to the barriers faced or the difficulty of identifying suitable CET courses.

Existing international surveys on CET do not capture the issue of the perceived utility of CET participation. Low-skilled adults may be willing to overcome existing barriers to training, if they perceive that the time and financial investment of taking part in CET is worthwhile (Pennacchia, Jones and Aldridge, 2018[11]; Ambos, 2005[16]). Instead, they frequently find themselves in a ‘low skills trap’, stuck in low-level and low-paid positions, lacking opportunities for development and expecting limited returns to most training, such as wage increases or access to better quality jobs (OECD, 2017[17]; Burdett and Smith, 2002[18]). As discussed in Chapter 2, German evaluation evidence suggests that low-qualified adults in particular may have to make time and resource investments to see substantial returns. Currently, it is still the participation in longer trainings (often to gain a full vocational qualification) that has the strongest positive effect on employability (Doerr et al., 2014[19]; Bähr et al., 2018[20]; Bernhard, 2016[21]). These long opportunities may seem too daunting to low-skilled adults, given their frequent negative experience with previous education and training, as well as the multitude of barriers they face.

Data from a 2017 IAB survey show that the belief that taking part in CET will not pay off economically is one of the major obstacles for low-qualified adults (Figure 6.8). Fifty-three percent of adults with low-qualification levels believe that a key barrier to participation in job-related education and training is that “it is not guaranteed that it will be worthwhile financially”. By contrast, adults with Bachelor level qualification or equivalent and those holding Master level degree or above do perceive this to be less of an obstacle (26% vs. 17%). This relates to the issue that participation in CET does not automatically lead to the higher classification of an individual in the salary scales agreed through collective bargaining agreements, as these scales are often tied to job tasks rather than qualifications. The only obstacle that is greater than the perceived lack of financial reward is the concern of “not being used to learning anymore’’, which is felt by 67% of adults with low qualifications.

Looking at situational barriers, adults with low skills differ from their higher-skilled counterparts on a range of socio-economic and -demographic characteristics, such as age, parental education, migration background and gender (Figure 6.9), all of which shape their opportunities to train. In the following sub-chapter, data are presented for adults with low basic skills, but similar patterns can also be observed for adults with low qualifications (Autorengruppe Bildungsberichterstattung, 2020[22]).

These socio-economic and -demographic characteristics can lead to situational and dispositional barriers as follows:

  • Gender: 57% of adults with low basic skills are women. Women in Germany traditionally have less access to CET opportunities due to still taking on the majority of caring responsibilities and being more loosely attached to the labour market.

  • Age: 30% of adults with low basic skills are between the ages of 55 and 64, while only 22% of higher-skilled adults are in that age group. Older adults are typically less likely to train due to their proximity to retirement. The limited time remaining to benefit from the returns to investment in skill development makes it less likely that this target group (and their employers) make the investment (OECD, 2019[23]).

  • Low-skilled parents: Compared to their higher-skilled peers, adults with low basic skills are four times more likely to be from families where both parents are low-qualified. In Germany, socio-economic background has a significantly higher impact on the learning outcomes of students than in most other OECD countries (OECD, 2019[24]). Parental background can shape an individual’s attitudes, expectations and perceptions of learning over the life-course.

  • Migrant background: A similar correlation can be observed for adults with a migration background. People with low basic skills are three times more likely than higher-skilled individuals to be first-generation immigrants.

  • Low income: Hourly wages are strongly associated with basic skills. In Germany, the median hourly wage of workers scoring at Level 4 or 5 on the literacy scale is 86% higher than that of workers scoring at or below Level 1 (OECD, 2013[6]). Along the same lines, a person with tertiary education level (Figure 6.9, Panel B) earns over 83% more on average than a person with upper secondary education. By contrast, a person with below upper secondary education (e.g. ohne Berufsausbildung) earns 26% less than individuals with upper secondary education. Hence for adults with low incomes, the direct and indirect costs of training constitute a higher barrier to participation than for their higher-earning peers.

Take-up of learning opportunities is influenced not only by the characteristics of individuals, but also by the jobs and workplaces in which they find themselves. Eighty-five to ninety-five percent of all job-related CET is employer-supported, and it has been suggested that countries with the highest overall participation rates are where employer’s support for CET is highest (Desjardins, 2020[25]). Yet, the extent to which learning opportunities are made available to employees differs between sectors, occupations and differently-sized enterprises. Compared to their higher-skilled peers, adults with low skills frequently find themselves in sectors, enterprises and occupations that offer only limited opportunities for upskilling and reskilling. However, it must be noted that the direction of causality is unclear: low-skilled adults may train less because they find themselves in specific workplaces; or certain workplaces may provide less training, because they have high shares of low-skilled adults.

Looking at sectors of the economy, adults with low basic skills primarily work in low-tech manufacturing, construction and non-knowledge-intensive services, such as transportation and storage, accommodation and food (Figure 6.11, Panel A). They are under-represented in public services, financial activities and information and communication industries. Adults with low basic skills find themselves in sectors which typically offer manual, routine jobs with limited CET opportunities: according to data from the 2018 IAB Establishment Panel, less than half of enterprises in the areas of transport, storage, food and construction offer training opportunities to their employees. With 20%, the hospitality industry has the lowest share of enterprises providing CET. By contrast, the highest shares of enterprises providing CET can be found in areas where low-skilled adults are under-represented, such as education, health, social services and public administration (more than 80% providing CET), followed by enterprises active in financial and insurance services (72%) (König, 2020[26]).

Looking at the occupations low-skilled adults are employed in, it may be unsurprising that they are overrepresented in elementary occupations, among service workers and shop and market sales workers, occupations classified under the ISCO-88 major groups as low-skilled occupations (Figure 6.11, Panel B). Compared to higher-skilled counterparts, they are two and a half times more likely to work in elementary occupations. The same IAB data cited above show that adults in higher-skilled occupations are much more likely to train than those in elementary occupations, likely due to the high routine content of elementary occupations for which limited training is needed.

Finally, the size of the enterprise is another key factor in determining the CET opportunities they provide to their employees. Adults with low skills work considerably more often in micro- and small enterprises than those with medium/high basic skills (Figure 6.10). They are under-represented in large and very large enterprises. This is important, as the financial and organisational capacity of enterprises to offer systematic skill development opportunities increases with size. Data from the 2018 IAB Establishment Panel show that only 44% of micro-enterprises and 73% of small enterprises offer CET opportunities, while 93% of enterprises with 50-499 employees and 98% of enterprises with more than 500 employees offer such opportunities (König, 2020[26]). Adults working in elementary occupations in micro-enterprises display especially low CET participation (9%) (König, 2020[26]).

According to PIAAC data, more than two in five adults with low basic skills do not participate in CET due to a lack of time for work- or family-related reasons (21% and 20% respectively) (Figure 6.12). Shortage of time for work-related reasons is a relatively larger issue for the group of adults with medium to higher basic skills (34%), while shortage of time due to family-related reasons is a relatively smaller issue (14%). Similarly, lack of employer support constitutes a smaller issue for adults with low skills than for those with medium and high skills (7% and 10% respectively). This may be influenced by the fact that low skilled adults have lower employment rates than higher skilled individuals, as the importance of employment-related barriers differ by employment status.

Given their generally lower incomes (see above), it is unsurprising that the costs of CET constitute higher barriers for adults with low basic skills (12%) than for those with medium to high skills (9%). It should also be noted that, as outlined in Chapter 5, shortage of time and financial barriers are two sides of the same coin. Time constraints, be they due to family- or work-related reasons, may be overcome by financial support that covers the indirect costs of learning, e.g. foregone earnings during CET participation.

Most notably however, 21% of adults with low basic skills state that ‘other issues’ than those named are the main reason they do not participate (compared to 15% of medium- to high-skilled adults). This catch-all category may subsume a range of other relevant situational and dispositional barriers, such as health problems, fatigue, fear of failure or not finding appropriate opportunities, but may also reflect an awareness that participation in CET is desirable, without a clear understanding of why participation did not materialise.

Engaging low-skilled adults in learning requires the existence of appropriate CET opportunities for this target group. These must convey relevant content, including general and job-related skills, be tailored to their specific learning needs and be delivered flexibly to overcome the higher barriers faced by adults with low skills when it comes to CET participation (OECD, 2019[5]).

A 2018 review of the German CET landscape found that while CET participation of low-qualified people was below average across Germany, there were considerable regional differences. According to the study, the regional social and economic context, as well as existing infrastructure, explain one-third of the variation in CET participation of low-qualified groups (DIE and Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2018[27]). This also implies that factors such as the quality and availability of the CET offer, as well as co-operation between local providers, matter for participation.

As described in Chapter 3, the existing provision for low-skilled adults encompasses i) basic CET, including literacy (Alphabetisierung) and basic skills courses (Grundbildung/ Elementarbildung); and ii) general CET, which gives adults the opportunity to obtain general and vocational formal degrees in the form of second chance education (Nachholen eines (Berufs-)Abschlusses).

Basic CET offers, targeted at adults with low basic skills, include training on general literacy as well as on basic digital, health, financial, social and numeracy skills. Generally, basic CET is offered by Adult Education Centres, but some other profit and non-profit provision exists. Table 6.1 gives an overview of the types of basic CET available in Germany.

In Adult Education Centres, the dominant type of provision comprises in-person, classroom-based courses. However, new approaches with individualised learning opportunities seem to be increasing. Whereas courses were traditionally held once per week during the day or in the evening, about half of all basic CET courses now take place several times a week. A survey of Adult Education Centers in 2018 found that almost 76% of literacy courses were targeted at adults with migrant backgrounds who were not German native speakers. An important share of this offer comprises the integration courses funded by the Federal Agency for Migration and Refugees (BAMF).

In order to improve the level of basic skills among adults in Germany, the National Decade for Literacy and Basic Skills (AlphaDekade) was initiated as a forum to co-ordinate different CET stakeholders in 2016 (see Chapter 3, Box 3.5). The federal government and the Länder in partnership with other CET actors agreed on a common action plan and measures. They launched a range of projects in the main areas of basic education provision, research and public outreach (AlphaDekade, 2020[30]). The Länder pledge to strengthen regional supply structures and to promote networks of relevant actors (KMK, 2018[31]). Most federal states now have a co-ordination office that connects different providers of basic CET, for example the Koalpha co-ordination office in Saxony. This co-ordination unit can exist within the ministry for education, or other institutions such as the Association of Adult Education Centres of the respective federal state. Its function is to create transparency, provide advice, streamline the provision of basic CET and exchange innovative practices. Many states have furthermore introduced specific funding schemes for basic CET, for example the ALPHA+ project in Bavaria, or have started awareness-raising initiatives such as the Reading Makes your Life Easier (Lesen macht Leben leichter) campaign in Schleswig-Holstein. Some states have a network of centres specifically dedicated to the provision of basic CET. Table 6.2 lists the existing networks.

The BMBF funds a range of nationwide, regional and local projects on basic CET. A special focus of AlphaDekade is job-related basic adult education. In 2019, the programs implemented under the umbrella of the National Decade for Literacy and Basic Skills reached 11 700 people, among them adult learners and educators (BMBF and AlphaDekade, 2020[32]).1

However, basic CET opportunities targeted at adults with low basic skills reach only a fraction of the target group. The National Decade for Literacy and Basic Skills is raising awareness and co-ordinating efforts to address this issue, which is an important step in the right direction. Yet, the number of individuals touched by the initiative remains low and its long-term impact is yet to be evaluated.

A small share of adults in Germany holds no lower secondary degree (4%), according to data from the OECD Education at a Glance Database.2 For this target group specific provision exists in the form of second chance education. Since 2009, individuals have a legal right to education measures to prepare them for the secondary school-leaving certification (Hauptschulabschluss) and a legal entitlement to get financial support through the Federal Employment Agency (BA) and Jobseekers (Social Code Part III and II/ SGB III and SGB II). No legal right exists to pursue an intermediate school-leaving certification (Realschulabschluss).

There is some variation between federal states, but this type of provision takes place in evening schools, adult education centres or private non-profit providers of education and training. Courses are typically classroom based and can be delivered full-time, part-time and as evening courses. No comprehensive database on participants exists, but the available data from different sources suggest that relatively few adults take part in any given year (Table 6.3).

The vast majority of low-qualified adults in Germany already holds a lower secondary degree (Hauptschule, Realschule). What they lack is an upper secondary degree, either of the general (Hochschulzugangsberechtigung) or vocational kind (Berufsabschluss), which is reflected in the kind of CET provision that is available to them (Table 6.4).

CET opportunities for low-qualified adults encompass provision that allows them to acquire general and vocational upper secondary degrees via second chance education. Data on the number of adults obtaining full qualifications in this way are scarce (BIBB, 2020[34]). One recent estimate suggests that 12% of adults in Germany may have gained their upper secondary degree via second-chance education later in life, which is relatively high by international standards. It is also suggested that 1% of adults pursue these second-chance qualifications in any given year (Desjardins, 2020[25]). These estimates come with a range of caveats, most importantly that it is statistically challenging to distinguish between initial and adult learners.

Only a small share of adults pursues general upper secondary degrees, typically to gain access to higher education and training. This includes individuals who hold lower secondary degrees and have work experience. It also includes those who already hold vocational upper secondary degrees but are seeking entry to higher education through this route. There is some variation between federal states in how this kind of provision is delivered, including providers such as different types of public schools, adult education centres and non-profit providers. Much of the provision is school-based, but distance learning options also exist.

Second chance vocational education and training is the most important type of CET provision for adults with low qualifications in Germany. Much of the policy effort to upskill this target group is focused on helping them gain first vocational upper secondary degrees. In the German context this is referred to as vocational post-qualification (berufliche Nachqualifizierung) or graduation-oriented qualification (Abschlussorientierte Qualifizierung).

As a consequence of the results of the first PIAAC-report (OECD, 2013[6]), Germany introduced new instruments and benefits to encourage and motivate low-skilled employees to gain vocational qualifications through the 2016 Unemployment Insurance Protection and the Strengthening Continuing Vocational Training Act (Arbeitslosenversicherungsschutz- und Weiterbildungsstärkungsgesetz). This included the introduction of the CET premium (Weiterbildungsprämie, see Chapter 5). The Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS) and the Federal Employment Agency (BA) also set-up the Future Starter Programme (Zukunftsstarter) that aimed to support 120 000 young adults in gaining a professional qualification (see Chapter 5).

With the 2020 Work of Tomorrow Act, low-qualified adults now have a legal right to receive financial support from the Federal Employment Agency when pursuing a vocational upper secondary degree, if this is thought to improve their employability.

There are at least four types of learning provision enabling low-qualified adults to obtain vocational upper secondary degrees (see also Chapter 3):

  1. 1. Regular initial vocational education and training (IVET): Low-qualified individuals can pursue a vocational upper secondary degree by following regular IVET programmes, which are typically used by young people aged 16-19. More than 65 000 adults aged 24 or older took up IVET in 2018, according to the German Statistical Office. IVET is predominately delivered through the dual apprenticeships system, which combines in-company and school-based training. A smaller share of IVET is delivered in vocational schools (e.g. Berufsschulen, Berufsfachschulen, Berufskolleg). Apprentices receive an apprentice salary from their employing company.

  2. 2. Preparatory courses for the External Students Examination (Externenprüfung): The External Students Examination is a long-standing instrument which gives individuals the right to participate in the final assessment of vocational degrees based on work experience and without having taken part in the regular IVET programme (see also Chapter 4). Individuals are not required to take part in any additional education and training before taking the Examination, but they have the option to take part in preparatory courses for the Examination, which are offered by Chambers of Commerce, Trade and Crafts and other providers.

  3. 3. Vocational retraining (Umschulung): Vocational training is typically used to reskill individuals who hold IVET degrees, but can no longer pursue their profession. In some circumstances, it can also be accessed by adults with professional experience but without formal vocational qualifications. Individuals have a legal entitlement to get financial support for retraining through the BA (Bildungsgutschein), job centres or public pension and accident insurance. Vocational retraining is provided by private non-profit or commercial education providers, employers and vocational schools (Berufsschule, Berufsfachschule).

  4. 4. Partial qualifications (Teilqualifikationen): Partial qualification courses are modular upskilling and reskilling opportunities primarily targeted at low-qualified adults and adults with outdated qualifications and high risk of unemployment (see also Chapter 4). Different variants of partial qualifications exist, with alternative offers developed by the BA, Chambers of Trade and Commerce or Employer’s Associations. The development of partial qualifications in Germany lags behind other countries (see also Chapter 4).

    Taken together, CET opportunities for low-qualified adults in Germany are typically lengthy learning opportunities leading to full formal degrees. Many of them continue to be delivered in a classroom (rather than work-based) setting. Opportunities to flexibly acquire full qualifications through successive partial qualifications are limited and such opportunities are not yet streamlined throughout the German territory. Given the specific characteristics and barriers to learning experienced by this target group, more needs to be done to recognise prior learning and to develop partial qualifications (see also Chapter 4).

Across OECD countries, the participation in learning of adults with low skills is of particular concern and policy makers are keen on finding ways to engage more adults with low skills in learning. While employment rates of adults with low skills have increased over the past decade in Germany thanks to economic growth, a tightening labour market and an expansion of non-standard work, this trajectory is unlikely to continue. In the short term, the economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis is likely to worsen the labour market chances of this group. In the medium to long term, digitalisation and automation will significantly change many of the jobs held by this target group, or indeed displace them.

According to the OECD’s Priorities for Adult Learning dashboard, this is because Germany has some of the largest differences in participation in CET between different socio-economic groups among OECD economies (OECD, 2019[35]). The gaps based on skills or qualification levels stand out in particular. According to PIAAC data, only 23% of adults with low basic skills in Germany participate in job-related learning compared to 51% of those with medium to high levels of basic skills. Similarly, only 17% of adults with low qualification levels participate in job-related learning compared to 48% with medium or higher qualifications.

Adults with low skills face multiple, multi-layered and interconnected barriers to participation. In Germany, as elsewhere, one of the key barriers to participation is a lack of interest to take-part in learning, which may be an expression of having internalised other barriers to participation. Other important barriers include the personal and employment situation of adults with low skills. Adults with low basic skills are disproportionately female, older (55-64), low-income, and from a migrant background; all characteristics that can have an impact on their ability to train. They also more often find themselves in jobs and workplaces that offer only limited opportunities for upskilling and reskilling. Finally, available learning opportunities may not always be appropriate for adults with low skills. In Germany, CET opportunities for low-qualified adults in Germany are typically lengthy learning opportunities leading to full formal degrees. Many of them continue to be delivered in a classroom setting. Opportunities to flexibly acquire full qualifications through successive partial qualifications are limited and such opportunities are not streamlined throughout the German territory (see Chapter 4).

Incentives for most actors to invest in CET for low skilled adults are limited. The potential returns to this investment for employers are low, since, among others, they do have a demand for low-skilled workers and the economic benefit of training high-skilled adults is significantly higher. For the individuals themselves, there are limited financial returns to be gained from upskilling. As a result, their capacity to pay for CET is low and is likely to remain limited.

Recommendations deriving from this assessment are described in the remainder of this chapter and build on those formulated in previous chapters. Particularly relevant for increasing learning participation of adults with low skills are recommendations on guidance, validation and partial qualifications (Chapter 4) and on financial incentives (Chapter 5).

Existing learning opportunities for adults with low basic skills or low qualification levels are dispersed and currently reach only a fraction of the target group. For adults with low basic skills, the National Decade for Literacy and Basic Skills (AlphaDekade) is raising awareness and co-ordinating efforts to address this issue, which is an important step in the right direction. However, the number of individuals touched by the initiative remain low and the General Agreement on the AlphaDekade lacks SMART objectives.3 For adults with low-qualification levels, existing CET opportunities are often lengthy courses leading to full formal degrees. Many of them continue to be delivered in a classroom setting. Opportunities to flexibly acquire full qualifications through successive partial qualifications are limited and such opportunities are not streamlined throughout the German territory (see Chapter 4).

To raise the level of ambition in this area, Germany should consider setting up a Bund-Länder initiative on up-skilling adults with low levels of basic skills, adults with low qualifications and adults with obsolete qualifications. As outlined in Chapter 5, such an initiative could be implemented through administrative agreements between the federation, the BA and individual federal states (based on the model of the Initiative Education Chains, Initiative Bildungsketten).

Such initiative could renew and expand the agreements made under the AlphaDekade or be launched as a new initiative. It should provide free or low-cost access to learning opportunities across the territory following a common approach and quality framework. Learning opportunities implemented under the initiative should use appropriate andragogic approaches and offer hands-on, problem-oriented and ideally work-based learning opportunities.

Many OECD countries offer targeted initiatives or large-scale programmes to upskill low-skilled adults, often in a work-based setting:

For low-skilled adults, one of the biggest barriers to participation is the direct and indirect cost of CET. Low-skilled adults often have limited financial means to invest in CET and can only expect small financial returns from upskilling. When in employment, these adults frequently find themselves in sectors, occupations and enterprises that are less likely to invest in the skill development of employees, for example because they rely on cheap, low-qualified staff to deliver their goods and services or because they lack the human resource capacity to develop appropriate CET opportunities for their employees. In general, employers are more likely to invest in CET of those with higher skill levels, as this is where they expect the highest return on their investment to training. Prior to 2020, the shortage of skilled labour (Fachkräftemangel) had put some pressure on employers to make substantial investments even at the low-end of the skills spectrum, but higher levels of unemployment following the COVID-19 crisis may reverse this trend.

Germany should consider making CET more financially attractive for adults with low skills. For unemployed individuals this could include a top-up to the unemployment benefits to make taking part in CET more attractive. For people in employment, financial incentives could be delivered in the form of a progressively structured single incentive accessible to individuals (see also Chapter 5):

  • Germany should consider topping up the unemployment benefit for individuals taking part in training. Unemployment benefits (ALG I, ALG II) should make participation in CET more attractive than taking up small supplementary jobs. Unemployed low-skilled adults who take part in CET typically have the direct and indirect costs covered by the public employment services, i.e. through education vouchers and the continuing receipt of unemployment benefits. However, when not participating in training, unemployed adults can currently earn up to EUR 165 per month on top of their unemployment benefits through small supplementary jobs (Ein-Euro-Jobs). These opportunity costs must be considered when designing financial incentives for this target group.

Different stakeholders, including the German Trade Union Federation (DGB), have suggested a supplementary monthly payment of at least EUR 200 or 15% of ALG I (DGB, 2019[42]). Research suggests that a EUR 300 top-up may significantly change participation (Osiander and Dietz, 2016[15]). Such an approach is currently being trialled in Bremen (Box 6.4). Results of the evaluation of the pilot are eagerly awaited and should be taken into account when re-designing the financial incentives for unemployed adults with low skills.

  • Low-skilled adults in employment should have access to a single progressive incentive. They do benefit from recent improvements to employer incentives introduced by the Qualification-Chances and Work-from-Tomorrow Acts. While the acts are an important step in the right direction, incentives for individual job-related CET outside the workplace are less well developed for this target group. In Chapter 5, this report recommends a reform of the financial incentive system for individuals and the development of a single, progressively designed incentive. As described in Chapter 5, such incentive could be implemented in the form of an individual learning account (ILA) or through a streamlined voucher scheme. Lessons from other countries suggest that any single incentive must be accompanied by a range of other measures to be taken-up by adults with low-skills. These include: i) ensuring simplicity of access and removing bureaucratic hurdles; ii) targeted advertisement and outreach to low-skilled adults; iii) accompanying guidance services to support individuals in using the incentive (see Chapter 4); and iv) flexibility to use the incentive for CET offers in line with their needs and abilities.

Some OECD countries already have in place progressively designed single incentives that offer greater financial support for adults with low skills:

Many adults with low skills do not see the need for CET and are not interested in pursuing CET opportunities. As they are not actively searching for learning opportunities, they cannot be reached by existing advice and guidance services. What is more, some research suggests that public awareness campaigns are also not effective for this target group, as many of the intended recipients don’t recognise themselves as such (OECD, 2019[5]). Reaching out to this group more actively and in their regular environment, that is, their workplaces and communities, is key for engagement and specific funding should be made available to facilitate this.

Some of these approaches are already being piloted in Germany, in particular those that engage individuals in the workplace. The metalworkers’ union (IG Metall) has developed the approach of Persons of Trust as CET Mentors (Vertrauensleute als Weiterbildungsmentoren). It trains trade union members to act as CET Mentors, which support their colleagues in identifying training needs and CET opportunities (IG Metall, 2018[46]). A similar approach is being developed by the Social Partners in the chemical sector Evaluation evidence from some OECD countries shows that approaching in the workplace is an effective way to engaging low-skilled adults in learning (Windisch, 2015[47]), in particular when implemented with social partners (Box 6.6). Financial support for social partners’ initiatives could help them engage their members and convince them of the importance to engage low-skilled adults in training.

Community-based programmes offer the possibility to reach out also to adults who are not in employment. Examples include family skills programmes in children’s educational institutions (e.g. Vienna’s Mama lernt Deutsch! Programme) or community groups (e.g. Finland’s KYKY programme or Argentina’s Hacemos Futuro).

The NWS also includes a commitment by the BMBF to support the training of CET mentors on a project basis, which will support low-skilled individuals in particular (BMAS et al., 2019[48]). Germany should consider systematising these different approaches and transitioning them from local, sectoral or project-based approaches to longer-term structural elements of the German CET landscape.


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← 1. The following link provides a list of the activities under the AlphaDekade https://www.alphadekade.de/de/projektdatenbank-1711.html#accordion-content-1.

← 2. These are adults who dropped out of school and did not (yet) acquire a degree at a later point in their lives. Adults with a migration background, especially immigrants themselves, more often have no school leaving certificate than adults without migration background. Younger native born adults more often hold no degree than older adults, the opposite is true for adults with migration background (bpb, 2014[52]).

← 3. SMART = specific, measureable, attainable, relevant and time-bound.

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