The Urban Growth Vantaa project (Urbaania kasvua Vantaa in Finnish) co-created and piloted upskilling solutions in Vantaa-based small- and medium-sized companies (SMEs). Inclusion through the workplace proved to be a particularly successful experiment that promoted upskilling benefits for both the employer and the employees. This article illustrates the process of engaging employers and working adults in skills development in the workplace.
Digital transformation challenges the labour markets and the need for re- and upskilling is urgent. Despite the need for education and training, evidence shows that groups most in need of training often participate the least. Adults with a medium or high skill-level are significantly more inclined to learn new skills, whereas only around 20% of adults with low skills participate in adult learning. (OECD, upcoming)
The OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities organised an international conference on February 15-17 to explore how local communities can overcome local skills gaps and mismatches by helping people reskill and upskill throughout their working lives. The Urban Growth Vantaa project was invited to OECD Local Skills Week to take part in a panel discussion in a session on ‘Promoting inclusion through skills policies: What works locally’. The session was about showcasing some of the most promising examples of local programmes on upskilling and reskilling introduced in the Policy Manual on Adult Learning in Cities. The recently launched manual has a particular focus on programmes to support inclusion in the labour market through skills policies.
Working adults with low qualification reached through the workplace
The Urban Growth Vantaa project was presented at the conference as one of five innovative European programmes. It was selected as an example addressing all three key focus areas identified by OECD: promoting inclusion and equality through adult learning, getting employers engaged & meeting local skills demands, and creating a strong local skills ecosystem. Long-term work for skills development has been identified as important as Vantaa is the fastest growing city in Finland in terms of both population and jobs (Tekniikka ja Talous 2020).
The Urban Growth Vantaa project has focused on the skills development needs of working adults in SMEs. Special attention was paid to those adults who have lower qualifications, outdated skills or who lack a degree after basic education. They are considered a vulnerable group in work life, as they are under-represented in adult learning and at risk of being left behind. They need stronger guidance and support when considering learning opportunities. No working adult should be left alone with the demands of upskilling (Erkkilä, Kortesalmi & Lamberg 2022).
To address the growing working population in local SMEs, the Urban Growth Vantaa project cocreated an upskilling solution for SMEs and their personnel. The barriers to adult learning, such as training outreach, information on educational possibilities and selecting a suitable training path have all been acknowledged in the Urban Growth Vantaa project. The project team utilised co-creation methods to create understanding of working life skills needs and adults’ demands in project partners’ companies. As a solution, it introduced Inclusion through the workplace.
Project upskilling solution creates value for SMEs and individuals alike
Partnering with SMEs was identified as an important gateway to reach out to the vulnerable group (working adults with lower qualifications). As a starting point, it was understood that to get the commitment of local SMEs in a skills development project, it needs to create obvious or measurable value for them in the short-term. The local skills ecosystem can offer several benefits to SMEs. The first benefit is a single point of contact, who can help them in all training-related matters, whether they are vocational or academic. Second, the main idea of the project upskilling services is that the employee learning is also designed to support the employer in a way that the new skills promote company growth and competitiveness. This ensured employers’ general commitment to social investment.
Typically, apprenticeships are targeted at individuals as an opportunity to earn a vocational degree. The Urban Growth Vantaa solution is to introduce the upskilling idea with its benefits first to the SME decision makers first. In these discussions with a vocational education and training (VET) specialist, company skills-needs were defined, and employers received information about suitable training alternatives. The main objective of the discussions was to plan the employee’s training to match their employer’s longer-term skills requirements.
The next step in the process was to engage and inspire employees. This was organised through a group session at the company’s premises. The main aim was to explain the benefits of upskilling and provide information on adult learning alternatives. Each group session was followed by a personal guidance session for those interested in offering support from a VET specialist who helped tailor personal training paths.
While the Urban Growth Vantaa project was able to commit 25% of group session participants to enter apprenticeships, more is needed. Ideally, the guidance and support would not end at signing an apprenticeship agreement or starting other degree studies. We have argued that an adult learner benefits from close mentoring from a supervisor throughout the learning path (Erkkilä et al., 2022). As demonstrated here, continuous learning requires close and active local cooperation from working adults, education providers and employers alike in order to have the desired impact. In the long term, such cooperation ideally evolves into a local skills ecosystem that creates value for all partners.