Back to the future
Mary Kett explores how lessons from the past are informing current policies in Ireland
For policy-makers as well as practitioners in Ireland, the recession and rising unemployment rates (12.5% in October 2009)(1) have created considerable, yet familiar, challenges. As in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when unemployment peaked at almost 20%, education and training authorities want to provide people with opportunities to re-skill and upskill so that their employability is increased in a future recovery.
Indeed, many current further and adult education programmes owe their origin to this earlier economic downturn, when adult education was seen as a way for people to use their enforced free time more fruitfully. Now, as then, it is individuals with low levels of education, training and skills who are most at risk of becoming long-term unemployed. Reintegration into the labour market is achieved more easily and quickly by people who receive appropriate training during a period of unemployment.(2)
Skills for employability
The scale of the unemployment crisis and the scarcity of resources require strategic policies that put in place targeted, effective and valueformoney programmes aimed at the most disadvantaged unemployed people. The Irish response involves a joint approach to labour market activation from government departments for employment and adult education and training.
A range of measures aimed at maintaining people in employment and reskilling/upskilling those who had lost their jobs were announced in the April 2009 budget, including 7000 additional education places for newly unemployed people.
Research shows that the most effective programmes are those that link closely to demand in the labour market.(3) But it is essential to underpin these with interventions that strengthen generic skills for adults with poor or no qualifications.
Understanding of the adult skills deficit in Ireland has increased considerably since the 1990s, and policies are now implemented in the context of the European lifelong learning strategy and recent EC* communications on adult learning calling on Member States to prioritise the needs of low-skilled workers.(4)
While there is still more to learn about the specific skills that make the key difference to employability,(5) evidence indicates that generic skills carry at least as much importance for employers as technical or job-specific skills in the modern workplace. The key competences(6) of literacy, numeracy and digital competence, as well as communication and team-working skills, learning to learn, creativity and entrepreneurship, apply across the full spectrum of jobs in the knowledge economy, from driving and hairdressing to software and financial services.
New awards at Levels 1 and 2 on the National Framework of Qualifications offer adult returners additional opportunities to gain broad general education qualifications which can be built upon for progression to more focused vocational pathways.
Re-emerging tensions between policy and practice
The current refocusing on unemployed adults gives rise to a number of key questions. Does this focus on 'employability' reverse the priority that has been given to social inclusion as a key goal of adult education provision? Or can provision focused on employability outcomes also contribute strongly to social inclusion and social cohesion? Meanwhile, on the ground, the demand from newly unemployed people for education and training places has risen dramatically.
The challenge now is to maintain frontline provision and consolidate recent investments in order to ensure longterm sustainability. A priority for the Government is to support those who have lost their jobs, through retraining and further education. Both the Higher and Further Education sectors have a key role to play in providing the type of upskilling that will help unemployed people develop their workforce skills and avail themselves of more sustainable employment opportunities.
Mary Kett is Further Education Development Coordinator for the Department of Education and Science in Dublin
(1) Central Statistics Office, Ireland, www.cso.ie
(2) Ahearne (Economic and Social Research Institute) on RTÉ News: Morning Ireland, 29 April 2009.
(3) O'Connell, P. and Jungblut, J-M. (2008) 'What do we know about training at work' in K.U. Mayer and H. Solga (eds) Skill Formation: Interdisciplinary and Cross-National Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(4) European Commission (2006) It is never too late to learn; European Commission (2007) It is always a good time to learn.
(5) Keese, M. (2006) 'The Role of Education and Training in Building International Competitiveness', in EGFSN National Skills Conference, The Skills Needs of the Irish Economy to 2020. Dublin: EGFSN.
(6) Recommendation of European Council and Commission on Key Competences for Lifelong Learning, www.europa.eu/legislation_summaries/education_training_youth/lifelong_learning/c11090_en.htm
* See Glossary