In recent years, attention on measures towards skills-upgrading, workforce development and lifelong learning have gained pro-eminence in several OECD countries, but the questions of who is to benefit from these programmes and how they are to be delivered have received insufficient attention. First, while the need for skills development appears to be widely acknowledged, less emphasis has been given to low-wage and low-skilled workers, or former welfare recipients, often because their re-integration in the labour market was perceived as an overwhelming policy priority. Programme beneficiaries are broadly categorised as belonging to two distinct groups: either the unemployed - and especially the long-term unemployed - or as those 'in employment'. The dichotomy in the categorisation of the target groupimplies a strong division of responsibilities for skills provision, with the former assigned to public sector, often in co-operation with voluntary sector agencies, and the latter to employers, or to the workers themselves, through public or private training institutes. However the many failures and barriers confronting skills acquisition for the low-qualified and economically disadvantaged, and in particular those re-integrating the labour market after a spell of long-term unemployment and social exclusion, imply that public policies towards skills-upgrading are of paramount importance.
Research conducted by the OECD [DT/LEED/DC(2002)5] has showed that measures to upgrade the skills of the low-qualified are more likely to be designed at the local level than at the national level and frequently take the form of pilot projects. While some ad hoc programmes exist in many OECD countries, such as those financed through the ESF in the European Union, the conditions under which such pilots emerge, and the extent to which these effectively respond to the needs of the target group and to those of local employers remain unclear.
A cross-country comparative study process is currently being implemented. Its purpose is to examine the mechanisms used to upgrade the skills of the low qualified workers in various economic and institutional contexts and their outcomes so as to formulate a series of policy recommendations. The study aims to provide guidance on how to i) tackle the obstacles to job retention and progression for the disadvantaged workers; ii) bridge the gap between re-integration and vocational training through better integrated active labour market policies; and iii) use skills-upgrading to better meet the needs of the workers, the socially-excluded, the local employers and the community in general, within the context of integrated development strategies.
Five countries are participanting in this project: Belgium (Flanders), Canada, Denmark, the United Kingdom and the United States. The outputs of the study will consist of a final report (prepared by the OECD Secretariat), policy recommendations (approved by the LEED Directing Committee) and reports specific to participating countries (prepared by experts under the Secretariat's supervision), to be published in 2005.
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