Non-formal skills development isn’t a replacement for formal education. However, it can complement by covering the needs of certain aspects that formal education institutions lack.
But what do we mean by non-formal skills development? It applies diverse teaching methods. Its end goal isn’t a degree or diploma. It’s rather pure learning itself. It supports job-searching opportunities and encourages self-employment.
You may have heard a lot about the changing nature of the world of work. Technology and digital innovations are reshaping the world of work. The types of employment are also changing with the emergence of working arrangements outside of the standard employment contracts. So, all these will require specific skills. These skills should come from both non-formal and formal education systems.
To be specific, the three main skills to be competitive in the labor market are foundational skills, technical skills, and transferable skills.
Armenia as an example
The Republic of Armenia has undergone changes (including legislations) in the education system. It seems, however, that the current form of the education system in the country doesn’t support the learning of soft skills.
To begin with, Armenia’s formal education system focuses on foundational skills like reading, writing, and technical skills. This leaves a wide gap to be covered by non-formal education providers to teach job seekers specific skills needed in a particular sector or employer.
Most small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the country fundamentally lack general business schemes and skills fit for the changing economic/labor market system. In a way, this is what the system inherited from the Soviet era. It’s very easy to establish a business —it takes only 20 minutes to register; it doesn’t require any minimum capital requirement.
This leads to a situation where it’s easy to enter the market. However, it’s harder to operate, given that the businesses lack crisis management skills, access to finance, and many other matters that are inherited from the post-Soviet realities in Armenia.
Most importantly, the Armenian legislation hardly refers to non-formal education. Policymakers just focus on the term ‘supplementary and continuing education’. You may wonder what they mean by this. Simply, the non-formal education in the country is traditionally teacher-centered. The system views trainees as passive recipients of knowledge, following a fixed learning plan, coming very close to formal education methods.
To make things more difficult, practicing or internship opportunities are very limited and usually, employers seek candidates with relevant job experience. It’s the young people who should have the first chance for employment and opportunities to learn specific skills for a particular job vacancy. Therefore, it’s very important to increase their self-confidence and to encourage them to invest and take charge of their learning. That’s why the demand for tailor-made applicant-driven non-formal education nowadays is higher than ever.
It’s easier to describe the problems that the Armenian education system faces. Most people know about it. The challenge is to identify the key constraints – not just the symptoms – and come up with solutions to stimulate long-term changes.
This’s where the RECONOMY program comes in. Together with our partner, Strategic Development Agency (SDA), RECONOMY seeks to facilitate the synergy between quality non-formal skills development institutions and the private sector in tourism and hospitality as well as the agribusiness sector of the Armenian economy.
The focus is on facilitating availability and better access to improved and relevant non-formal training offers, as well as strengthened and diversified intermediation services. Using a systemic approach, the initiative supports private and public sector providers to improve the relevance, accessibility, and quality of non-formal skills development and intermediation service.
Put simply, the initiative has two objectives: a skill-enhancing objective and an employment or income-generation access objective. The first one facilitates the performance of training provision for the relevant and future-oriented training system. The second one is about putting in place structures and services that enable the matching of skills and employment or income-generating opportunities by a range of stakeholders.
The key will be to stimulate market actors to establish networks with similar institutions in other countries of the region or exchange mutual learning. To do this, the initiative focuses on the support functions (design and delivery, collaboration, information) and rules (quality and norms/perception) as entry points for leveraging private and public sector know-how, capacity, and financial resources for improved economic opportunities.
It’s also very important to intensively promote shared understanding among key players like service providers, public institutions, and the private sector about sustainable business models in skills, knowledge, and information services.
Countries of the South Caucasus region are similar in terms of their labor market structures and employment as well as unemployment-related programs. Once successfully developed and tested, it’s possible to replicate and apply the model in other countries as well.
Practically, some of the potentials of scaling up may include strengthening linkages with market actors but also players in the tourism and agriculture sectors. Another option is establishing joint networks wherever is possible for training providers, actors in the tourism and agriculture sectors, and also strengthening knowledge and learning for exchange between such actors.
Tapping into emerging opportunities: Is digital the way?
The importance of digital learning has increased tremendously because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For non-formal training or vocational skills development, blended learning seems to be the future.
We all realized how the pandemic has changed the way we work and learn. Despite knowledge isn’t still a click away for many people, learning is increasingly taking place remotely on different platforms. The Digital Agenda – 2030 of Armenia also emphasizes the promotion of digital skills.
That said, digital learning has many advantages, but often it isn’t enough. Many vocations don’t allow for remote training at all. To learn a new profession or increase vocational skills, we often need practical sessions and certain equipment. While this might be possible in some professions like cooking – where students can watch learning videos and use their own kitchen – it’s impossible in all professions.
However, the pandemic isn’t a challenge only for the young people, but also for the teachers and trainers. They now need to switch from teaching or training face-to-face to digital or blended formats, keeping the focus on learning while using the technology as a tool to enhance creativity and inspire new ideas. Therefore, digital competence is key for the learning outcomes of learners and further the professional development of the teachers and trainers.
The initiative in Armenia, for example, can support training providers on how to adjust their offers through capacity development that they could come up with attractive learning formats. This indeed should also aim to reach out marginalized young people and make these learning opportunities attractive and accessible for them.
There are examples we can learn from and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
The RisiAlbania project of the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation (SDC) supported four non-formal training providers on how to diversify their training offers during the pandemic. Through these courses, they could have delivered online or blended formats. This increased opportunities for women of rural areas and other vulnerable groups.
Similarly, the E4E@mk project of the SDC supported various initiatives that pushed for digitalization in education and skills development. The project invested in building up capacities of the key personnel on how to deal with digitalization in skills development.