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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



Non-formal workplace learning – are adults getting a quality deal?

by Andrew McCoshan
Language: EN
Document available also in: DA HU FR DE IT PL ES LT LV

/epale/en/file/non-formal-workplace-learningNon-formal workplace learning

Non-formal workplace learning

Most workplace learning isn’t formal. EPALE Thematic Coordinator Andrew McCoshan looks at what we know and don’t know about it, and the issues it raises from the point of view of quality.


Workplace learning has shot up the agenda in recent years, not least through the promotion and development of apprenticeships at European level. But the vast majority of workplace learning is non-formal rather than formal and this is one reason we know very little about it.

What is non-formal learning?

Non-formal learning, according to EU definitions, means learning which takes place through planned activities (in terms of learning objectives, learning time) where some form of learning support is present (e.g. student-teacher relationships); it may cover programmes to impart work skills, adult literacy and basic education for early school leavers; very common cases of non-formal learning include in-company training, through which companies update and improve the skills of their workers such as ICT skills, structured on-line learning (e.g. by making use of open educational resources), and courses organised by civil society organisations for their members, their target group or the general public.

In contrast, formal learning means learning which takes place in an organised and structured environment, specifically dedicated to learning, and typically leads to the award of a qualification, usually in the form of a certificate or a diploma; it includes systems of general education, initial vocational training and higher education.

Performing an indispensable function…

Non-formal workplace learning is a vital source of learning for adults. EU statistics show that typically around one third of people in employment have participated in employer-sponsored, job-related non-formal learning in any 12-month period, and that some 71 % of the total number of hours spent by adults in non-formal education and training are job-related and sponsored by employers, although there is much variation from country to country. 

There is no doubt that non-formal workplace learning performs an indispensable function in equipping both employers and employees with the skills they need directly related to the job in hand. Also, the fact that so much of an adult's learning is sponsored by employers shows that employers are in effect filling a gap for individuals who might otherwise be inhibited from accessing training because of its cost.


But there are important gaps

However, from the statistics two other features are clear:

  1. There is a gender gap: 77% of the total hours spent by adult men in the EU-28 in non-formal instruction were job-related and sponsored by employers, compared to 65 % amongst women. In some countries the gap was higher, e.g in Italy and the Czech Republic the share for men was 19.0 and 17.1 percentage points higher than that for women in 2011. The reasons for the gap are unclear. They may be related to general patterns of participation in learning and/or to other processes in the workplace such as the different treatment of men and women in regards to pay and conditions.
  2. There is an educational attainment gap: People with a high level of educational attainment are more likely to have their non-formal instruction sponsored by employers – around 71% of people with either a tertiary or upper secondary level of educational attainment compared to 65.5% of people with at most a lower secondary education. This gap is particularly wide in some countries, e.g. Poland 75% and 51% respectively, Cyprus 68% and 49%; in others it is similar or reversed, e.g. Bulgaria 85% and 95%, Spain 66% and 66%, Italy 56% and 58%, Portugal 77% and 64%. Again, the reasons for these patterns are unclear.


And some key aspects of quality need further investigation

The starting point for the success of non-formal workplace learning provision is the extent to which companies have a good understanding of their training needs. Unfortunately, as a recent Cedefop report pointed out, employers often lack knowledge “on the areas in which they should invest with respect to their personnel and a lack of strategies for investing in workplace learning".

What of the provision itself? Much non-formal workplace learning is likely to be either provided by companies themselves or brought in from outside providers. In-company provision is likely to be the preserve of larger companies, those with human resource strategies and personnel and also with well-developed quality systems. Smaller companies, in contrast, are more likely to rely on the growing market of short training programmes, provided perhaps locally or increasingly online. Little is known about these private training markets, their strengths and weaknesses. But in such unregulated markets, there is likely to be variation in quality and one can ask how easy it might be for businesses to find good quality training that meets their needs.


An opportunity for adult educators

We need a lot more research in order to know whether adults are getting a 'quality deal' from non-formal workplace learning. However, on the positive side, this type of learning enables the development of skills needed by both employers and employees and for many adults it is the only opportunity they get to participate in learning.

At the same time, there are important questions to be answered about how the opportunities for learning are distributed in the workplace, between men and women, and between people with different levels of educational attainment. Furthermore, many employers, especially SMEs, would probably value support in identifying their training needs and in sourcing high-quality training providers.

It seems to me that adult educators and public sector providers have much to offer in this respect given their skills and expertise. In some countries, like the UK, the design and provision of short courses for employers is already an important part of the work of adult education providers.

Andrew McCoshan has worked in education and training for over 30 years. For more than 15 years he has conducted studies and evaluations for the EU, and before that was a consultant in the UK. Andrew is currently an independent researcher and consultant, an ECVET Expert for the UK, and Senior Research Associate at the Educational Disadvantage Centre at Dublin City University in Ireland.

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