By now the idea of lifelong learning has been widely accepted. Everyone now works longer and longer. So clearly we are continuing to learn. But what does this look like in practice? Joke Elzenaar-Maathuis from The Netherlands comments on the subject and advocates more future oriented training.
In February 2016, in its socioeconomic trends series, Statistics Netherlands (CBS) provided an overview of lifelong learning in the Netherlands. NIDAP, a strategic advice and market research firm, also conducts annual, research and publishes fact sheets entitled ‘Open’ Opleidings- en Trainingsmarkt (‘Open’ education and training programmes market).
According to Statistics Netherlands, in 2014 some 18% of the population aged 25-65 participated in some form of education or training programme, either for work or for leisure (Pleijers & Hartgers, 2016). Compared to other European countries, the Netherlands is among the leaders in this regard. France, Finland, Sweden and Denmark surpass the Netherlands, with Denmark overall leader at 32%. The same study indicates that participation in an education programme or course is highest in the age group younger than 35, with participation dropping as age increases. From age 35 and older, people more often participate in shorter education programmes and training sessions than in longer ones. A striking detail is that young adults participate in informal learning more often than older adults. Informal learning relates to independent learning, such as reading a book or searching for information on the internet. Seen by sector, most education programmes and training sessions were followed by individuals working in financial services, education, health care and in government.
According to the NIDAP study (2015), 28% of the respondents taking training sessions indicated that they would have the same job in five years' time. Of the respondents in an education programme, 17% indicated this. For the financial services sector these percentages were just 19% and 11% respectively. In health care the percentages were 30% (training sessions) and 18% (education programmes). For the government sector these percentages were over 30% and 20% respectively. The same figures apply to the education sector.
Although apparently we are doing better than many other European countries, I find the figures somewhat disconcerting. Lifelong learning seems to die out with age and is not replaced by informal learning. And this despite the fact that lifelong learning is a must for older workers. Those in their fifties still have many working years ahead of them. And these days it is short-sighted to think that you will be in the same job with the same employer for the next twenty years. No employer still offers lifelong employment. On the contrary: the number of temporary contracts is continuing to rise, as are numbers of flexible workers. In the financial services sector it is readily apparent that jobs are changing and disappearing due to digitisation. Employment in the sector is expected to drop from the 250,000 currently employed to 25,000 in 2030. That may seem far away, but those in their thirties and forties today will have to deal with this. This means that there is a very large group of workers who will have to retrain for another profession or sector. The belief that older workers (aged over 55) are no longer flexible and have difficulty learning is mythical. Not a single study convincingly shows this. Companies also maintain this myth, to the extent that older employees begin to believe in it.
Because why do so few individuals aged over 50 manage to find new jobs? Why don't they retrain in large numbers? The reward system based on length of service leads to older workers becoming too expensive, and having a harder time starting over in a new profession or sector. Employers' and workers' organisations should engage in fresh discussion about a new reward system instead of sticking to the current status quo. Recruiters are often fledgling HRM staff, and as a consequence young. They tend to hire people their own age. And it is indeed true that older employees who began working with lifelong employment as prospect and who were never challenged to think about another future, do have trouble switching when they suddenly lose their job. But what about those currently in their thirties and forties? Are they aware of the fact that they will have to go back to ‘school’ in another five to ten years?
Future oriented learning
And if you do engage in further learning, what should you be studying? The Statistics Netherlands report indicates that education programmes and courses are primarily focused on maintaining or improving current job performance and thus are focused on the current position. This is far from surprising, as organisations tend to pay a large part of the education costs. And of course they want to see their investment pay off. However, from a societal point of view this is in fact unacceptable. Despite all the wonderful HRM stories about sustainable employability, companies will really have to change course and provide more future oriented education. Having said this, I do realise that the future is difficult to predict. Yet one thing is certain: the world will continue to change and will do so at a quicker and quicker rate. Education providers, both publicly and privately financed, will have to design education programmes with a much greater eye to the future. Digital skills should at least have as prominent a place in these as change capacity. So should everyone learn how to program? No, of course not, although the ‘internet of things’ does mean that we need to understand digitisation and robotisation to a certain extent. In the same way that we do not have to be electricians to change a light bulb, we will not need to be programmers, but it is good to be able to make small adjustments when confronted with a bug.
In a number of Dutch ministries (Education and Social Affairs), lifelong learning has long been on the agenda. Government does its best to encourage adults to continue learning. Educational institutes are given the opportunity to provide more flexible and tailored programmes. Experiments are taking place with demand-side funding and introducing certificates in senior secondary vocational education (MBO), allowing educational climbing via subsequent programmes without having to immediately opt for a lengthy programme. Yet there are also restrictions imposed by government. Legislation is the first obstacle. It is almost impossible to follow vocational training outside your own field, since these always involve a work placement and it is impossible to quit your job to do an unpaid internship if you have a family to support. Anyone on unemployment benefits is required to be available for work full-time and thus is unsuited for training obligations.
Another restricting factor is the inflexibility of funded education. It is almost impossible to follow an education programme at various times of day, such as in the evenings and on Saturdays, and at various locations. I believe that this is the result of the social function that educational institutes have in training adolescents and young adults to become novice professionals and competent citizens. This is an important task, and a challenging one too due to social changes and developments in society, which requires the full attention of education providers. However, this places pressure on adult education. Flexibility and tailored programmes are difficult to reconcile with the course calendars of initial education. Private education providers that focus on adult workers are more capable of meeting adult workers' demands for flexible education programmes. The costs for those wishing to train themselves outside their field are very high. Employers will seldom pay for such retraining. This is why demand-side funding is so very interesting for adults. If government only finances education for the young, it shows it finds education at a later age unimportant.
We also need to realise that we need to invest in ourselves if we wish to continue to remain employed until retirement age. So there is a comprehensive assignment for the educational field, the business world, government and the workforce to make lifelong learning a success and keep the working population up to date, and our country competitive and prosperous.
Appealing or lifelong
By improving legislation and flexible education, we can make strides. However, we the education providers must do our utmost to make learning appealing. We must not underestimate how happy many in the workforce are to be done with school. This is particularly the case for those with lower or secondary education, comprising two thirds of the working population. Lifelong learning can feel like a lifelong sentence of compulsory learning without pleasure. But new digital technology can help to make learning more fun and easier. Learning that isn't bound to time or place is a boon in this regard. Following a webinar or taking an e-class at home on your sofa can be fit into a busy home and working life. We no longer need to memorise knowledge. Tablets and smartphones mean that knowledge is constantly at your fingertips. Virtual reality allows us to practise in our own environment with ease. And never forget that the time-honoured educational axiom always rings true: if learning is required or there is a need to learn, motivation will exist. The necessity becomes reality as a matter of course, yet it would be exhilarating if workers today were to anticipate matters. The future starts today!
Private Education Facts and Figures
Of the 1.6 million participants in education programmes aged 25-65, 84% are in a programme or course given by a private education provider (non-publicly funded organisations). Private education institutions have an annual turnover of €3.4 billion. There are 81 private higher professional education (HBO) institutions, 100 private senior secondary vocational education (MBO) institutions and 16,000 organisations providing courses and training sessions, including over 450 employing more than ten persons (Source: NRTO).
Joke Elzenaar-Maathuis is the director of Bestuursacademie Nederland, an organisation that focuses on the development of people and organizations within the public administration.
Joke studied Educational Science at Leiden University and graduated from the University of Amsterdam with a Master's degree in Advanced Labour Studies. Her subsequent employers included the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nationale Nederlanden, ING, ROC Flevoland and a number of training agencies. She now has some 25 years of management experience in professional vocational education and company training programmes.
"I myself am an example of 'lifelong learning' and this has really benefited me. It has given me tranquillity and independence, and I am not afraid to lose my job since there is always another route for me to take. It gives me fulfilment and perspective for the future, it keeps me vigorous. That's something I would wish for anyone."
NIDAP (2015). Consumenten opleidingsmonitor B2C [B2C Consumers training monitor]. Amsterdam
Pleijers, A. and M. Hartgers (2016). Een leven lang leren in Nederland: een overzicht [Lifelong learning in the Netherlands: an overview]. The Hague: CBS. Sociaaleconomische trends [Socioeconomic trends]. 2016.02.
This article was originally published in Dutch on volwassenenleren.nl