There is ample evidence that the provision of adult learning helps to maintain and upgrade workers’ skills, equipping them with competencies that are needed to be successful in the labour market, and strengthening their overall resilience to exogenous shocks. In addition, adult learning has been shown to have a positive impact on wages and productivity, making it a worthwhile investment for both workers and their employers. For example, evidence shows that participation in non-formal learning is associated with 11% higher wages, while participation in informal learning is associated with 3.5% higher wages (after correcting for a number of socio-demographic and job characteristics and controlling for selection into training of the most motivated workers) (Fialho, Quintini and Vandeweyer, 2019[1]). In addition to higher wages, participation in informal and non-formal learning has been shown to translate into productivity gains. This implies that adult learning benefits not only workers, but also employers.

Adult learning reflects the learning that occurs in formal settings such as vocational training and general education as well as resulting from participation in formal, non-formal and informal training. These include, for example, participation in certified courses (formal learning), workshops and employer-provided training (non-formal learning), and learning from others, learning by doing and learning new things at work (informal learning). Over the past year, efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus and minimise its death toll, have depressed economic activities and with them also the learning activities that benefit both workers and their employers. This brief aims to quantify the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the ability of workers to participate in non-formal and informal adult learning activities, and considers examples of policies countries can develop to promote learning during the pandemic. In most countries, informal learning is by far the most prevalent form of learning at work. Learning that occurs informally on the job through interaction with colleagues is the form of learning that is most likely to be disrupted by social distancing measures and workplace closures. On average across OECD countries about 70% of workers engage in informal learning activities over a 12 month period, compared with 41% who engage in non-formal learning and just 8% who train towards a formal qualification (Fialho, Quintini and Vandeweyer, 2019[1]).

After one year since its onset in China, most countries around the world are still struggling with the unprecedented health, economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, causing the deepest recession in nearly a century. Learning opportunities for workers also continue to be severely disrupted. Most OECD governments introduced radical social distancing measures that partly or completely reduced workers’ physical presence in the workplace through mandated shutdowns of non-essential economic activities, as part of the global effort to limit the coronavirus from spreading and to reduce its death toll and health consequences. In addition to directly affecting production and consumption in the short-term (OECD, 2021[2]), shutdowns may have medium and long-term negative effects on the global economy through multiple indirect channels.

Along with dampening of business activity, shutdowns decrease the opportunities for workers to participate in various forms of learning opportunities that they would normally had when physically at work. The inability to participate in learning activities (either in part or fully) could potentially reduce productivity and reduce some workers’ employment and/or wage prospects. Lack of training may have especially negative effects on the prospects of disadvantaged workers as they are typically employed in low-skilled, routine jobs which are less amenable to working and learning remotely. In this brief “remote learning” refers to the ability of workers to participate in learning activities through, for instance, online learning courses provided by the firm or, informally, through maintained collaboration with co-workers in smart-working settings.

Because of COVID-19, many employers are unable to provide physical learning opportunities in the workplace, but some are enabling their employees to pursue learning opportunities through digital platforms on line. However, many forms of learning, in particular informal learning, were inevitably lost, as workplaces remained physically closed (see the section The impact of COVID-19 induced shutdowns on the ability of workers to train).

Adults willing to upskill, reskill and keep their skills up-to-date can engage in a variety of activities. These range from certified courses (formal learning), workshops and employer-provided training (non-formal learning), to learning from others, learning by doing and learning new things at work (informal learning). It is important to distinguish between different forms of learning (formal, non-formal and informal), as they vary in prevalence, and have been shown to provide different returns, both in terms of wages, as well as productivity gains. In addition, the way they are affected by, or can be maintained during workplace closures and in socially distanced workplaces, is also likely to vary substantially.

When looking at the number of learning hours, informal learning is at least twice as common as non-formal learning, even under the most conservative assumptions. Differences in the number of hours spent in non-formal and informal learning are significant across countries, a difference that could reflect differences in labour market structure, as well as work and cultural practices across countries (Figure 1).1

Informal learning typically relies the most on the interaction among colleagues and, as such, is the most likely to be disrupted by social distancing measures and workplace closures.    

The decrease in adult learning and especially in informal learning due to COVID-19 induced shutdowns raises distributional concerns as low-skilled workers are more likely than the high-skilled to rely on informal learning for skill development (as they are less likely to participate in other forms of learning) (Fialho, Quintini and Vandeweyer, 2019[1]). In particular, data suggest that while low-skilled workers participate less in non-formal and formal learning activities, they rely heavily on learning by doing and/or from the interaction with their colleagues. A pause in work activity and reduced contact with co-workers can, hence, hinder their upskilling significantly, with negative scarring effects on their employment prospects and skills development.

Low-skilled workers are particularly exposed to the negative effects of COVID-19 induced shutdowns of economic activities on their skills development, while high-skilled workers working in sectors in which activity can be maintained through remote working arrangements can continue to work and learn during the pandemic (Espinoza and Reznikova, 2020[4]). If remote working is possible, supportive managerial practices can help to maintain some of the interaction with, and learning from, co-workers. As such, workers can be partly sheltered from the negative impacts of shutdowns and learning activities can be partly maintained. The feasibility of working remotely and the effect that this has on the ability of workers to train remotely is discussed in the following section.

Triggered by the unprecedented scale of the health emergency, businesses were required to reduce or close their operations at different times in 2020 and many workers were forced to remain at home. However, economic activity was and is being maintained in some sectors thanks to the transition of operations to remote working practices. Digital technologies enable a degree of interaction between colleagues, facilitating ‘remote learning’. However, the transition to remote working does not automatically lead to ‘remote learning’. Supportive management practices are necessary to encourage the interaction and sharing among workers, so that informal learning can continue to be provided and received. For example, encouraging mentors to share their screens while working remotely, can help to imitate the office setting, allowing junior staff to continue to learn from more senior staff despite the lack of physical interactions.

Working remotely is therefore a necessary but not sufficient condition to maintain the provision of informal learning opportunities and to avoid the disruptions caused by learning interruptions in the short, medium and long term. Similarly, companies that offered non-formal learning opportunities to their employees should continue to do so and invest further to leverage the potential of digital technologies and adapt content to changing skill needs. In occupations in which tasks cannot be performed remotely, learning opportunities are inevitably lost. For instance, much of the informal learning to which sous-chefs are exposed, comes from their continuous interaction with the Head Chef in the restaurant. If this physical interaction ceases, much of the informal learning also stops. This situation applies to a wide variety of jobs and workers who rely on physical proximity with co-workers to learn on the job.

The capacity to smoothly transfer work and on-the-job learning online depends on the sector, the tasks required for performing the job, and the extent to which these can be performed remotely and communicated effectively without physical interaction. It also varies across countries, and is linked with prior readiness for the digital transition.

This policy brief uses both the OECD estimates of the intensity of sectoral shutdowns (discussed in-depth in the following section), as well as the country- and sector-specific figures on the feasibility to work remotely, to examine different scenarios to determine the amount of informal and non-formal learning that workers have likely forgone as a result of social distancing measures and lockdowns. Espinoza and Reznikova, (2020[4]) investigate these relationships in the COVID-19 context, and estimate the feasibility of working remotely by country and by sector. The feasibility of working remotely is assessed by examining the extent to which jobs involve the performance of physical tasks, the application of flexibility in work, and the intensity of the use of information and communications technology (ICT), reading and writing skills in workplaces.

While the COVID-19 pandemic forced virtually all businesses to rethink their operations, certain sectors are being exposed more than others to shutdowns of non-essential activities. For instance, workers in the tourism and recreation sector, including those employed in civil aviation, have been particularly exposed to economic shutdowns. The intensity of sectoral shutdowns, and the ability of firms to shift operations on line are two key determinants of the ability for workers in that sector to access learning provision.

The intensity of sectoral shutdowns and the ability of firms in a particular sector to transfer their operations on line are two key determinants of the ability for workers in that sector to access learning provision.   

In order to estimate the number of learning hours that workers may have missed due to reductions in operations because of COVID-19 restrictions, the analysis in this brief combines three elements: i) the figures on the participation of workers in learning (hours), ii) the estimates of sectoral reductions in economic activities as reported in Table 1 and iii) the feasibility of working remotely (Espinoza and Reznikova, 2020[4]). This information is used to assess the average loss in hours of non-formal and informal learning that workers in different sectors (differently hit by COVID-19 shutdowns and ability to work remotely) are facing during the pandemic. The two scenarios can be interpreted as the “extremes” in terms of the pathways that countries can find themselves in, depending on the restrictions in place. As the pandemic unfolds, countries can move across the scenarios, and may find themselves at any point between the two scenarios.

Results show that across OECD countries, workers’ learning opportunities could have decreased by an average of 18% in case of non-formal learning, and 25% in case of the informal learning during widespread shutdown regimes. These estimates are adjusted to account for the partial transfer of learning activities online, according to the country- and sectoral feasibility of working remotely discussed above.2 Figure 2 provides a cross-country overview of the estimated impact that COVID-19 related reductions in economic activities may have on the number of informal and non-formal learning hours for an average worker, for each week of restrictions. Cross-country differences emerge as a reflection of differences in the average participation of workers in learning activities in each country (see Figure 1), as well as of each country’s specific economic structure. In particular, economies that are more dependent on sectors that rely on face to face physical presence are likely to experience greater losses in learning hours.

Sectoral analyses indicate that under the widespread lockdown scenario, reductions in economic activities have the strongest negative impact on learning opportunities for workers employed in administrative and support service activities (N); arts, entertainment and recreation (R); and other service activities (S), (Figure 3). For both types of learning, workers employed in these sectors lose on average nearly three‑quarters of the learning opportunities, as compared to the pre-pandemic scenario. When the epidemiological situation improves and more economic activities begin to operate at higher levels in the limited shutdown scenario, arts, entertainment and recreation (R) remain the most affected sector (because these activities are classified as strictly non-essential).

Similar to the cross-country results, sectoral differences reflect the variation in the learning hours under a “business as usual” scenario, combined with the extent to which each given sector has been forced to suspend its operations (under the widespread shutdown scenario), and the sectoral “essentiality” index determining the limited shutdown scenario.

Low-skilled workers tend to be overrepresented in sectors that were hardest hit by pandemic-induced closures and in sectors that have fewer opportunities to shift work to remote delivery.

On average across the OECD, in the widespread shutdown scenario, the difference in the number of workers by level of education employed in sectors most affected by widespread lockdowns was small: 25% of workers without tertiary education against an average of around 22% of tertiary educated workers (Figure 4). However, in Australia and Norway differences in the percentage of tertiary-educated workers and non-tertiary-educated workers being affected under the widespread shutdown scenario are marked: in both countries the difference in the number of tertiary-educated and non-tertiary-educated workers being affected by closures was at least 10% points.

By contrast, differences in teleworking arrangements are estimated to be profound. Low-skilled workers are more often engaged in service jobs that cannot be performed remotely. OECD estimates suggest that while 54% of tertiary educated workers were able to work from home, the share was only 18% for workers without a tertiary degree (Figure 5) (Espinoza and Reznikova, 2020[4]).

Taken together, these two effects lead to varying “learning loss” outcomes depending on the educational attainment of workers. Estimates indicate that on average, medium- and low-skilled workers experience a reduction in their informal learning opportunities that is over twice as large as for tertiary educated adults. Under the widespread shutdown scenario, every week, an average tertiary-educated worker missed just over half an hour of informal learning, while a worker with, at most, upper secondary education missed nearly 1.5 hours (Figure 6). Disparities vary across countries, and are particularly pronounced in Slovenia, the Slovak Republic, Spain and the United States.

Low- and medium-qualified workers experience a reduction in informal learning due to COVID-19 that is twice as large as among tertiary-educated adults.   

Workers who did not attain tertiary education are also more likely to miss non-formal learning opportunities. In the Netherlands the gap is widest both in absolute and relative terms, as low-and medium-qualified workers are exposed to an impact 2.3 times larger than the tertiary educated group. Noteworthy, in Korea and Mexico tertiary-educated workers missed a significantly larger amount of informal learning opportunities than the lower-educated workers. Specific cross-country differences are illustrated in detail in Figure 6.

Estimates indicate that on average, under the widespread shutdown scenario and the assumption that when men and women work remotely are equally likely to have to combine work and household chores and childcare obligations, male workers experienced a reduction in both informal and non-formal learning that is nearly 50% larger than women3. In a widespread shutdown scenario marked by a deep reduction in economic activity, the average male worker missed nearly 1.5 hours of informal learning, while female workers missed less than an hour of informal learning (Figure 7). In Israel the gap is widest both in absolute and relative terms, as men are exposed to an impact 2.4 larger than women. For non-formal learning opportunities, the gap remains the largest in Mexico. The disparity is largely driven by the higher feasibility of remote working for women as compared to men, stemming from a higher employment concentration in occupations amenable to working remotely. OECD estimates suggest that while 34% of women are able to work from home if physical operations cannot continue, the share was only 28% among male workers (Espinoza and Reznikova, 2020[4]).

Shutdowns of economic activities in the immediate aftermath of the spread of COVID-19 globally not only had a direct economic impact on workers and companies, but also a negative effect on the ability of individuals to participate in lifelong learning and training activities as the latter are generally done informally and on the job.. Although the inability to learn and train due to COVID-19 induced disruptions impacted many workers, effects were not equally spread across workers, genders and sectors.

While it is difficult to pin down the exact intensity of the impact of social distancing measures on the participation in learning opportunities across countries, this brief shows that, under a set of assumptions, workers’ learning opportunities during a widespread shutdown decreased by an average of 18% in the case of non-formal learning, and 25% in the case of informal learning. The loss may be reduced to an average of 13% for non-formal learning, and 17% for informal learning, once the improvements to the epidemiological situation allow for a re-opening of most economic activities. As such, the pandemic has substantially reduced learning opportunities that will not be easily recovered, and which will be felt both in terms of firms’ productivity and workers’ wages in the future.

Workers’ learning opportunities during widespread shutdowns decreased by an average of 18% in case of non-formal learning, and 25% in case of informal learning.   

Mitigating the damages that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused to skills development will require a concerted policy effort and a series of timely and decisive actions. More than ever, the success of many workers will depend on their ability to adapt to future change in skill demands and the competitiveness of many firms will depend on having workers that rapidly and flexibly respond to changing needs. As many sectors undergo structural changes leading to largescale lay-offs and to a more pronounced use of automated production strategies, investment in upskilling and reskilling can help workers strengthen their personal resilience in the aftermath of the crisis. COVID-19 led to fewer training opportunities for workers who need retraining the most. Under the widespread lockdown scenario, every week, an average tertiary-educated worker missed just over half an hour of informal learning, while a worker with at most upper secondary education missed nearly 1.5 hours of informal learning.

To ensure a sufficient supply of upskilling and reskilling opportunities, many governments encouraged or mandated that companies using job-retention schemes offer formal or non-formal learning opportunities to their workers as a way to increase their adaptability. Job-retention schemes were prolonged in many countries to address the continuation of the health emergency. Providing public support for such schemes should remain or become tied to the provision of learning opportunities to workers and workers’ participation in such opportunities to ensure that resources are not just supporting workers’ livelihoods but become investments for the future. As economies reopen and social distancing measures are progressively relaxed, flexible and blended forms of learning could be used to expand participation in learning opportunities. This will be a major challenge for many education and training systems, especially given a context of tight government budgets and substantially weakened finances in the private sector (OECD, 2020[7]).

The COVID-19 crisis magnified the challenges related to the digital transformation, and the inequalities it can lead to in terms of business operation and training delivery. The pandemic extended remote working far beyond what was previously perceived to be possible by many, and while the future remains unclear, many businesses and workers appear to consider blended work patterns which include remote working. As a result, countries should consider investing even more in digital infrastructures to make remote working arrangements more effective and ensure that they enable participation in remote learning. Furthermore, the success of remote learning (every form of formal, non-formal and informal learning done online) will largely depend on how well technology, curricula and teaching methods will be adjusted to the specific needs of workers, which may require additional investments supporting digital transformation especially in low-skilled jobs. As insufficient access to digital infrastructure remains an obstacle to participation in training for the disadvantaged groups, remote learning methods that rely on easy-to-access infrastructures should be privileged. For instance, the use of recorded (as opposed to real-time) training materials, can help learners whose access to the Internet is limited, or who share IT devices with other household members (Lederman, 2020[8]). The COVID-19 crisis also led to rethink the debate on public funding of the Internet access, as a basic good that all citizens should have access to, and the idea is at present considered in several OECD countries (OECD, 2020[9]).

As the pandemic has accelerated the digital transition, more attention needs to be paid to ensuring that it is carried out in an inclusive way.   

Lack of digital skills might further marginalise workers without sufficient prerequisites, who struggle to participate in online work and training activities. Programmes imparting basic digital skills should be developed to ensure that all adults can benefit from online and distance learning as much as possible. Some efforts in that direction were already underway in some countries before the crisis. In order to support lower skilled adults in accessing online learning, for instance, prior to the crisis several countries introduced programmes designed to equip adults with basic digital skills. The national development plan in Hungary (Széchenyi 2020) aims to provide 260 000 low-skilled adults from disadvantaged regions with training in digital skills. In the United Kingdom, low-skilled adults have access to fully-funded digital skills programmes, in addition to the already existing maths and English programmes (OECD, 2020[9]).

Broadening the training offer, to cover a wider spectrum of sectors, could help to make remote learning more inclusive. At present, the online training offer predominantly targets white-collar workers, leading to the risk of widening skill gaps. The use of Artificial Intelligence can support delivery of new forms of training, aimed to imitate a real-life experience. For example, virtual reality (VR) may help in recreating a “earning by doing” experience, thereby facilitating workers’ exposure to informal training. Walmart Academies, for instance, have developed VR training programmes targeting floor managers and workers, giving employees an opportunity to experience in-store scenarios and address customer complaint situations in a virtual environment (Oh et al., 2018[10]).

References

[11] Del Boca, D. et al. (2020), Women’s work, housework, and childcare before and during COVID-19, https://voxeu.org/article/women-s-work-housework-and-childcare-and-during-covid-19.

[4] Espinoza, R. and L. Reznikova (2020), “Who can log in? The importance of skills for the feasibility of teleworking arrangements across OECD countries”, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 242, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/3f115a10-en.

[6] Fana, M. et al. (2020), The COVID confinement measures and EU labour markets COVID & Empl Working Group, http://dx.doi.org/10.2760/079230.

[1] Fialho, P., G. Quintini and M. Vandeweyer (2019), “Returns to different forms of job related training: Factoring in informal learning”, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 231, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/b21807e9-en.

[8] Lederman, D. (2020), How the shift to remote learning might affect students, instructors and colleges, https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2020/03/25/how-shift-remote-learning-might-affect-students-instructors-and (accessed on 25 April 2020).

[5] MISE (2020), Ministero delle Infrastrutture e Sviluppo Economico, Decreto ministeriale 25 marzo 2020 - Nuovo Coronavirus. Modifiche al DPCM 22 marzo 2020, (Ministry for Infrastructure and Economic Development, Ministerial Decree 25 March 2020- Novel Coronavirus. Modifications to the Decree of the Prime Minister 22 March 2020), https://www.mise.gov.it/index.php/it/89-normativa/decreti-ministeriali/2040915-decreto-ministeriale-25-marzo-2020-nuovo-coronavirus-modifiche-al-dpcm-22-marzo-2020.

[2] OECD (2021), OECD Economic Outlook, Interim Report March 2021, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/16097408.

[7] OECD (2020), “Skill measures to mobilise the workforce during the COVID-19 crisis”, OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19), OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/afd33a65-en.

[9] OECD (2020), “The potential of online learning for adults: Early lessons from the COVID-19 crisis”, OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19), OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/ee040002-en.

[3] OECD (2015), OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) (Database 2012, 2015), http://www.oecd.org/skills/piaac/publicdataandanalysis/.

[10] Oh, J. et al. (2018), “Application of Virtual and Augmented Reality to the Field of Adult Education”, Adult Education Research Conference, https://newprairiepress.org/aerc/2018/papers/8.

Contact

Aleksandra PACIOREK (IEA): (✉ aleksandra.paciorek@iea.org)

Fabio MANCA (ELS): (✉ fabio.manca@oecd.org)

Francesca BORGONOVI (SKC): (✉ francesca.borgonovi@oecd.org)

Notes

← 1. Formal training tends to last significantly longer than the other forms of learning but involves very few workers.

← 2. If no assumptions about the feasibility of working and learning remotely are made, the average number of training hours that an average worker would miss would be 26% larger. For simplification, the percentage of training maintained through working remotely is assumed to be equal for non-formal and informal training.

← 3. In reality, women in many countries performed the majority of tasks in the home, often combining remote working with the care of children engaged in remote schooling, as well as other household chores. Results should, therefore, be interpreted with caution (Del Boca et al., 2020[11]).

Disclaimer

This paper is published under the responsibility of the Secretary-General of the OECD. The opinions expressed and the arguments employed herein do not necessarily reflect the official views of OECD member countries.

This document, as well as any data and map included herein, are without prejudice to the status of or sovereignty over any territory, to the delimitation of international frontiers and boundaries and to the name of any territory, city or area.

The statistical data for Israel are supplied by and under the responsibility of the relevant Israeli authorities. The use of such data by the OECD is without prejudice to the status of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the terms of international law.

© OECD 2021

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