2023: European year of skills… for quality or precarious jobs?

After the year of rail in 2021 and the year of youth in 2022, the European Commission decided to put the focus on skills for 2023. The challenge of skills is of course of paramount importance for the trade union movement, but we expect results and concrete policies, not declarations of good intentions. Rail workers have seen little to no improvements to their difficult working conditions and young workers are the most affected by consecutive crisis.

To succeed in this transition, anticipation of skill needs will be of paramount importance. Trust in workers and confidence from the employees in the process will also by key. If the narrative is to put the burden on workers to be prepared to change from one job to another, we fear this will not convince them. In that regard, upskilling workers to keep them in the same company is the most reassuring policy. It is also essential for companies to ensure that acquired competences are not lost. When this is not possible in the same company and job-to-job transition is necessary, keeping workers in the same sector and allowing them sufficient time for reconversion, without financial losses for the worker, is essential. Trade unions are ready to contribute to this challenge, in companies, in sectors, at regional, national and European level.

Overfocus on skills mismatch is a mistake. European companies do not lack skilled workers, they failed to offer quality jobs. The so-called mismatch is often more linked to bad working conditions (low wages, precarious contracts, disrespect, working time incompatible with work-life balance, lack of employee training & career development). If the European Year of Skills doesn’t look at that side of the coin, it will be clear that the burden is put on workers, not on companies.

The goal of including more women and young workers in the labour market also misses the point. What women and young people in the labour market miss are full-time contracts, universal social protection and quality public services. The reference to activation is quite delicate when we know what active labour market policies have done in the two last decades to unemployed and sick workers: threatening their incomes to make them accept any working conditions or low-quality jobs.

Finally, the focus on attracting third country nationals with the skills needed for the EU is highly problematic in promoting a brain-drain approach and not answering the needs of European workers. The ETUC always advocates for more regular channels for labour migration but the first priority of skills policies should be to ensure the working conditions and skills development for European workers, the unemployed and undocumented migrants already present and working in the EU. Leaving people in exploitative labour situations is first a denial of human rights but also a waste of competences for the sake of employment and skills policies. In the context of tension in EU democracies where the far-right forces fuel division among workers on the basis of origins and the so-called more favorable social rights for migrants, developing an EU talent pool available to Ukrainian refugees only is maybe not the best idea of the century. What is the signal sent to the unemployed in the local labour markets and the non-Ukrainians third-country nationals? All migrants and refugees should have the same equal opportunities and access to decent working and employment conditions.

Skills strategies cannot be separate from quality job creation and retention strategies. Indeed, training, reskilling or upskilling programmes won’t be of any use for workers if they live in an economically deserted area that does not offer alternative job opportunities. Workers need alternative quality jobs in the same regions where the effects of the transition will be felt.