Questions and answers: On the role of skills in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

Article | 18 December 2015
The United Nations has adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development aimed at transforming our world in the next 15 years. Within the context of this agenda, many of the topics addressed on the Global Skills for Employment Knowledge Sharing Platform (Global KSP) such as training quality and relevance, achieving gender equality in skills training, youth employability, and lifelong learning, among others, are at the centre of the development process.

Against this backdrop, the ILO’s Global KSP has become a key resource contributing to decent work and reducing inequalities. To talk more about this issue and the role of skills development in efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Global KSP Team interviewed ILO Senior Skills Specialist Mr Paul Comyn.

Q: Why are skills key to sustainable development?

A: In my opinion there are two main ways: first is the broad role education plays in promoting sustainable development. This requires creating an understanding of the links between how we live our lives and the impact of our actions on our planet. Thus, education and training play a role in ensuring that people are aware of the impact of their actions on making our planet cleaner, safer and sustainable.

Second, when you think about skills development, you often think about training for a particular occupation or for employment in a specific sector or industry. Increasingly, sustainable production techniques are a priority, and the skills sector is a key to supporting sustainable production practices. For example, curricula, programmes and teachers must promote sustainable practices and production techniques to minimize impact on the environment. More broadly, sustainable development relies on people being able to work and to move out of poverty; to achieve this aim, employment is central and people need skills to get employed and opportunities to improve their understanding and capacity to use sustainable production practices.

Q: Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8 calls for, among other targets, the achievement of full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including youth and people with disabilities, as well as equal pay by 2030. What role can skills and lifelong learning play in achieving this overarching goal?

A: Targets under SDG 8 capture many of the central elements of the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda and aim to promote full and productive employment. As I mentioned previously, skills drive employment. People with reduced levels of employability, because they lack the requisite skills, are at risk of social exclusion and marginalization. So, skills and education play an important role in keeping people in the labour market. And making quality training opportunities available to all helps to support sustainable development and decent work.

Q: What role can the ILO Skills and Employability Branch play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030?

A: ILO action at the country level is determined by what we call “Decent Work Country Programmes”. At the moment many of those programmers are being reviewed in the context of the Sustainable Development Agenda and its multiple goals and targets.

However, what makes this new global agenda different from the Millennium Development Goals of 2000-2015 is that countries can chose which goals they want to emphasize. While the ILO participates in the review of these “Decent Work Country Programmes”, it will also help national governments prioritize sustainable development goals and targets that best complement their priorities and identify contributions the ILO can make to achieving them.

Skills are particularly relevant to SDG 4, which refers to inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning for all. Within SDG 4, there are a number of targets that specifically relate to vocational and skills training. The ILO’s Skills for Employability Branch will focus on SDG 4 as well as SDG 8. How we support SDG 4 will be shaped by the “Decent Work Country Programmes”.

Q: From your experience, what are the challenges and opportunities that countries could expect when trying to promote skills and lifelong learning?

A: Resource mobilization is always a challenge. Moreover, SDG 8 calls for a level of coordination and integrated policy responses that probably hasn’t existed before. This places increased pressure on countries to develop more complex and integrated policy and programme responses. In other words, it demands more sophisticated action.

I also believe that the international community and countries will struggle with data. Measuring achievement of the targets is not as straight forward as it may seem. In many countries data does not exist or systems for collecting it aren’t very robust. This represents a particular challenge. From the ILO perspective and due to the integrated nature of these goals, I think the emphasis will be on partnerships. Towards that end, we are already seeing strong partnerships, for example, between the ILO and UNESCO around SDG 4.

Q: SDG 5 relates to Gender Equality; what is the contribution of skills development to this goal? And what advice would you give to labour ministers to achieve equal access for all women and men to quality Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET)?

A: Enabling women to participate equally with men in economic life has a positive impact on improving the health of their families and financing education of their children. Yet women still face more barriers to education and training, particularly in rural areas and in countries with high levels of work in the informal economy. Education and training systems still have quite a lot of work to do to increase the participation of women.

When you think about skills development and training, factors such as whether there are separate toilets for men and women, the timing of programmes, and the flexibility of delivery that allow a more equitable sharing of care and family responsibilities can make a difference. In addition, offering training courses better aligned with labour market demands instead of emphasizing traditional occupational segregation – such as jobs as beauty technicians or in the garment industry – can also help increase the participation of women in skills training programmes.

Labour ministries could consider such options as providing access to child care in training institutions or more secure transport to and from work. So, we need to think about what is keeping women from participating more fully in education and training and how we can put in place a strategy to overcome such barriers. It is like anything, if you want to improve the situation you have to first understand what the issues are and then have a strategy to address those issues. But it is also about trying to promote the participation of women in non-traditional roles. In this aspect, things like social marketing and having female role models have been found to be successful.

Q: Finally, how could a skilled workforce contribute to reducing inequalities among countries and achieving SDG 10 on equality?

A: At the end of the day, increasing skill levels provides greater opportunities: for instance, opportunities for mobility in the labour market to move within companies and between regions. In essence, having higher skill levels provides greater opportunities for individuals and in that sense there are spillover effects on potential income and moving out of poverty. More importantly, it also allows people to obtain decent work.