The hidden talent pool: Empowering low-qualified persons in the EU labour market

The study by Jan Paul Heisig, Carla Hornberg, and Heike Solga highlights that focusing on workplaces and innovative human resource strategies is essential to improving job opportunities for low-qualified workers.

Unsplash / Kenny Eliason

Numbers suggest that the EU has been successfully up-skilling in the last ten years. The proportion of low-qualified adults (those without upper-secondary education) in the EU27 decreased from 28.8% in 2013 to 24.9% in 2022 (Eurostat 2023a). However, this group still makes up a quarter of the working-age population (aged 15–64), making them a significant population group in the labour market. Low-qualified adults are a vulnerable group, as they face higher unemployment rates and are more likely to be in low-paying jobs. The unemployment rate for this group was 11.6% in 2023, compared to 5.6% for those with higher education levels (Eurostat 2023b).

Low-Qualified but Highly Skilled

Research using data from the OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) – reveals that low-qualified workers are not always less skilled (see for example Heisig 2018 and Heisig and Solga 2015). Although there is generally a skill gap between low-qualified and higher-qualified adults, there is significant variability within the low-qualified group. Some low-qualified adults have skills comparable to or exceeding those of higher-qualified workers. This discrepancy highlights that formal qualifications often misrepresents individual’s skills.

The relationship between formal qualifications and skills varies by country. In nations with tracked education systems, where students are divided into different types of secondary schools, the skill gap is wider, and there is less variation in skill levels among low-qualified adults. Countries with strong vocational education and training systems, like Germany, somewhat mitigate the negative impact of educational tracking on skills.

Barriers to training: The Struggles of Low-Qualified Workers

Even when low-qualified workers possess high literacy and numeracy skills, their job opportunities are still limited by their formal qualifications. This is especially true in countries where formal qualifications are highly transparent indicators of skill levels. Thus, low-qualified individuals often end up in less desirable jobs despite their actual competencies.

Access to further training for low-qualified workers also remains limited. Workplace characteristics, such as job roles and company size, rather than individual skills or motivation, are the main barriers to training participation. In addition, smaller companies and part-time positions often offer fewer training opportunities for employees.

Policy Recommendations 

Addressing the challenges faced by low-qualified adults requires a multifaceted approach. To improve the employment prospects of low-skilled workers, it is essential to focus on workplaces and on companies’ human resource strategies. Concretely, this implies recognising and utilising workers’ skills better, and increasing their access to job-related non-formal training (NFT).

In addition, policymakers should foster cooperation between training providers, public authorities, and sectoral associations; encourage employers to see training as an investment rather than a cost, and promote policies that enhance early childhood education and inclusive school systems to reduce educational inequalities from an early age.

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Eurostat. (2023a). Population by educational attainment level, sex and age (%) – main indicators. doi:10.2908/EDAT_LFSE_03

Eurostat. (2023b). Unemployment rates by sex, age and educational attainment level (%). doi:10.2908/LFSQ_URGAED

Heisig, J. P. (2018). Measuring the signaling value of educational degrees. Secondary education systems and the internal homogeneity of educational groups. Large-Scale Assessments in Education. doi:10.1186/s40536-018-0062-1

Heisig, J. P. and Solga, H. (2015). Secondary education systems and the general skills of less-and intermediate-educated adults. Sociology of Education, 88(3), 202–25.

This article is based on this post by Daniela Vono de Vilhena and Peter Weissenburger, first published on Population Europe.