Adult learning and education, work and a sustainable future

Without robust, high-quality and relevant adult learning and education programmes, we are in danger of neglecting our workforce and reducing the chances of a sustainable future, argues Paul Comyn of the International Labour Organization.

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Adult learning and education (ALE) serves multiple purposes in many different local and national community contexts, one of which is to support adults to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes that will enable them to look for and find work, either in paid employment or through other livelihoods. Employability is a key concept that underpins the work of the International Labour Organization (ILO), which it defines as the ‘portable competencies and qualifications that enhance an individual’s capacity to make use of the education and training opportunities available in order to secure and retain decent work, to progress within the enterprise and between jobs, and to cope with changing technology and labour market conditions.’

The ILO recognises that individuals are most employable when they have broad-based education and training, basic and portable high-level skills, including teamwork, problem solving, information and communications technology and communication and language skills, and that this combination of skills enables them to adapt to changes in the world of work.

Unemployment is affecting youth, in particular, and the transition from education institutions to work is being disrupted by a lack of demand-driven and practice-oriented training, sluggish economies and changing labour markets. According to the latest ILO estimates, the youth unemployment rate in 2020 was 17.2 per cent, as opposed to 6.6 per cent for the population as a whole. These inequalities have been further exacerbated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted the learning of many youth and low-skilled adults, as well as their mental, social and financial well-being.

To enhance employability and promote the transition to an ecologically sustainable economy, young people and adults need continuous reskilling and upskilling to successfully navigate rapidly changing economies affected by digitalization, the shift to a low-carbon economy, and other mega-drivers of change in our societies. Efforts must be made in the short- and medium-term to ensure that curricula and pedagogies support knowledge, skills, values and action for just and sustainable societies. It is a lifelong learning approach, which also calls for reflection and the ‘unlearning’ of unsustainable ways of living.

ALE has a central role to play in ensuring the achievement of these goals. The twin transitions to digital and green economies will result in job losses and uncertainty for a segment of the workforce, as well as in the creation of new opportunities. Reskilling will therefore be vital. Countries will need to ensure access to affordable, quality technical, vocational education and training (TVET) and skills development and the acquisition of technical and vocational skills for employment, decent work and entrepreneurship. In this context, skills development is expected to address multiple demands of an economic, social and environmental nature by helping youth and adults develop the skills they need for employment, fulfilling work, and entrepreneurship; promoting equitable, inclusive and sustainable economies; and supporting transitions to digital and green economies.

In terms of its role in delivering language, literacy and numeracy training, along with occupational skills, ALE is fundamental for promoting the employability of adults and supporting them in the transitions that are expected to become more frequent throughout our working lives. Providers of ALE are uniquely placed as anchor institutions in their communities and have the potential to provide programmes to develop employability, either directly or through partnerships with providers of vocational education and training. ALE providers are important contributors to local skill ecosystems and play a key role in providing pathways into the various learning options that support employability.

We need to ensure that governments consider ALE as a sector and network of providers that demands support so they can achieve their potential of meeting the diverse needs of adult learners and communities around the world.

Paul Comyn is Senior Skills and Employability Specialist at the International Labour Organization

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