ESCO - A common currency for skills?

Trade union leaders at the European Trade Union Summit 2014 ©ETUC-CES
Trade union leaders at the European Trade Union Summit 2014 ©ETUC-CES

We all know about the euro. It is a currency across Europe that makes it easier for goods and services and people to move freely between European countries. Suppose there was a similar currency for skills. It would provide a commonly understood description of all the units of all the jobs in the EU.

Fanciful? Not at all. It’s being developed now.

It is called the European Skills Competences and Occupations (ESCO) project. Its official description is "the multilingual classification of European skills, competences, qualifications and occupations" and it is part of the Europe 2020 strategy.

It aims to create a common language for skills – a common currency, the "euro for skills". It is a project aiming to develop a detailed map of every job, broken down into its component competences – thousands of jobs, thousands of competences – in every EU language. And then mapped against qualifications.

So, for example, British plumbers could use ESCO to analyse all the competences in their jobs and then map that collection of competences against vacancies anywhere in Europe. That opens the door to far more job opportunities for plumbers, swapping Scotland for Spain. They can also see where there they may have gaps, filling which which would enable them to get better jobs. ESCO will show how to do that, what qualifications would help and which jobs need them.

It's all detailed, technical and very ambitious. Does this matter to trades unions? Yes and here’s why:

  • Unions exist to bargain with employers and get the best pay for the job.
  • Most would agree that higher skilled jobs should get higher pay.
  • But many highly skilled jobs are not as highly paid as they should be, e.g. in social care, looking after the elderly or serving customers in retail, in hotels and restaurants.
  • Many jobs involve "soft skills", not easily measured but they can be measured within ESCO.
  • Few low paid people in the UK have qualifications. That's often why they are low paid. But they do have hard earned competences.

Of course ESCO is complex and detailed, but so are the regulations supporting the euro, the European Central Bank and all the EU financial institutions. That's what enables capital to be mobile. If we want labour to be mobile, then it needs the same detailed support.

The European Qualifications Framework (EQF) helps map qualifications. It is a good first step, but what about people with few or no qualifications? Or where the qualification is not much of a guide to the skills actually needed in the job?

That's why we need to map competences, so they can be properly recognised and rewarded. This can improve careers guidance to support EURES, the network of European government job services for the unemployed. One in ten workers across the EU are unemployed – yet at the same time there are millions of vacancies.

ESCO will help education providers to design better qualifications that help learners and to get the right qualifications – across Europe. It can improve and help extend the regulation or licensing of occupations.

The ESCO structure includes two union representatives on its board. That’s the EU social partnership model of unions working with employers, sadly lacking in the UK. Our union aims for ESCO include:

  • better communication so ESCO can be understood by workers, not just technical experts,
  • inclusion of Trades Union reps in analysis of jobs and competences
  • inclusion of all kinds of competences, including "soft skills"
  • testing of outcomes with a wide range of users, including workers or job seekers, not just government or private agencies
  • flexibility to absorb new occupations and new kinds of competences.

Above all, ESCO is a good example of two things: First, the EU is doing detailed helpful work which we rarely get to hear about in the British media. Second, free movement is a good thing for working people, provided it is supported by detailed information and clear guidance.

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Tom Wilson

Tom Wilson is Director of unionlearn and is responsible for the strategic leadership and management of unionlearn. He represents unionlearn at senior levels with trade unions, government and other organisations.

He is responsible for developing and implementing the strategic plan. Tom also works with the unionlearn board and its advisory committees.