Politics and Policies of Skills Shortage

Europe of Knowledge |

Workshop participants

Workshop participants

Alina Felder

Last month, the first endorsed workshop by the ECPR Standing Group Knowledge Politics and Policies unfolded at the ECPR Joint Sessions of Workshops in Lüneburg (Germany). The workshop with the theme “The Politics and Policies of Skills Shortage” brought together thirteen scholars from across Europe who are working on the issue of skills shortage from different disciplinary angles. Alina Felder (University of St. Gallen) and Niccolo Durazzi (University of Edinburgh) directed the workshop which lasted from 25 to 27 March 2024 at the premises of Leuphana University of Lüneburg.

The aim of the workshop was to uncover the roles of social and education policies during times of skills shortage. The gap between the demand and the supply of skills is ever increasing (Warhurst 2008). States rely on education, skill formation, and social policies to close the gap between the demand and supply of (skilled) labour (Bonoli 2010; Carstensen and Emmenegger 2023) and to achieve social investment (Hemerijck 2018; Plavgo 2023).

Against this backdrop, the workshop participants addressed overlaps, coordination issues and political conflict among the relevant political, institutional and economic actors when tackling the issue of skills shortage. On the first day, workshop participants addressed the role of skills shortage for issues such as access and curriculum reforms, parliamentary debates, degree choice, educational preferences and growth regimes. The presenters of the second day zoomed into (active) labour market policies, efficiency and equity in collective skill formation systems and into adult learning investment and participation. On the final day, we learned about research on the role of training firms and of state intervention in tackling skills shortage.


The role of the state in secondary, higher and adult education and in vocational training

Astrid Favella (University of Rome) presented ongoing research on the dynamics shaping secondary school policy-making in Italy at national and regional level. Based on process tracing and multiple comparative case studies, her study finds that the long-termism needed for educational reforms clashes with the high government turnover of the last 30 years. Favella conceptualizes a multi-layered “dysfunctional mismatch” between access and curriculum policies at national level and finds a continues tension regional level labour markets needs and State level policies on the matter.

Zhamilya Mukasheva (LSE) presented her research which explores how governments have managed higher education degree offer in OECD countries from 1975 to 2020. During this period, governments have become less involved in steering higher education degree offer in many countries, a trend that has been recently reversed. As the paper shows, the policies introducing more government intervention – including restricting admissions to certain fields of study – have been more often initiated by right-wing governments and were associated with a lower availability of study places in arts and humanities.

In his paper Fabian Besche-Truthe (University of Bremen) analyzes how different economic and political bases impact the efforts toward (increased) skill creation. Using multiple measures of participation in and expenditure on adult education (AE) tentative results of mixed-model regressions suggest that the level of economic complexity positively affects governments’ expenditure on AE. Participation rates, on the other hand, seem to be driven mostly by the overall education level in society, suggesting a Mathew effect.

Milan Thies (European University Institute) provided new research findings on how the governance of European vocational education and training (VET) systems has evolved over the past two decades. Using natural language processing to analyse standardized country-level descriptions of VET systems, he finds a progressive increase in state intervention between 2005 and 2022. Two qualitative case studies show that this increasing state involvement manifests through very different policies, ranging from individual training rights and public service provision to firm subsidies.


Ideational and transnational perspectives on skill formation regimes and the role of stakeholders

In her work, Isabelle Huning (University of York) explores the historical development of narratives on skill formation in parliamentary debates. Utilizing quantitative text analysis, she shows how images and beliefs related to skill formation institutions have influenced institutional trajectories of vocational education and training in Germany and the UK. Huning shifts the focus from the institutionalization of apprenticeships to the narrative surrounding this institution and enriches existing scholarship with an ideational perspective on policy making.

Linda Wanklin (University of St. Gallen) made the case for a transnational perspective in analyzing skill formation systems in growth model scholarship. Jehona Serhati’s (FiBS Research Institute for the Economics of Education and Social Affairs) and her analysis addresses Kosovo’s changes in its skill formation and its underlying politics due to increased emigration to Germany. She argued that upper middle-income countries increasingly pursue a remittance-based domestic demand-led growth regime and adopt education reforms to meet the skill demands of advanced industrialized economies faced with skill shortages.

Niccolo Durazzi discussed joint work with Simone Tonelli (University of Edinburgh) on the effectiveness of collective skill formation systems in achieving both economic efficiency and social equity. Their paper argues that while no intrinsic reasons prevent collective skill formation systems from successfully adapting to the knowledge economy, such a process of adaptation is not automatic. Rather, it rests on the willingness of key actors (unions, employers, and the government) to adjust collective skill formation systems to the needs of a labour market that has fundamentally changed, primarily due to technological change.

Anna Wilson (University of Lausanne) presented co-authored work with Scherwin Bajka (University of St. Gallen) that aims at understanding skill provision issues from the perspective of firms providing initial vocational training in Switzerland. Drawing on labour economic theory, the authors underscore the factors associated with training firms’ tendency to i) worry about the future skill provision and ii) the extent to which firms relate this worry to the dual VET system, spanning various sectors and occupational skill-levels. The findings show that whereas firms in pink- and blue-collar occupations have “skill shortage” issues, due to a loss of occupational popularity, firms notably providing training white-collar and high-skilled occupations attribute their concerns to the lacking quality of VET candidates.


Labour migration and social policy to meet labour market needs

Kousha Vahidi (University of Lausanne) talked about a joint research project with Annatina Aerne (University of Lausanne) on immigrant parents’ educational preferences between vocational training and higher education. Based on interviews from the Parental Investment in Children’s Education (PICE) dataset the authors aim to understand why second-generation immigrants gravitate toward higher education even when their socioeconomic circumstances might typically guide them towards VET programs. Their findings suggest that the complex interplay between individual aspirations, cultural perceptions, and societal influences matters.

Seán King’s (Humboldt University Berlin) paper and presentation approached the topic of skill shortages by looking at the strategies countries pursue to meet low end labour market demand. Using a longitudinal analysis over 20 years, initial results indicate that some countries rely largely on migrant labour, while others incentivise the domestic labour force via welfare policy.

Ilze Plavgo (University of Mannheim) studied how transition to parenthood affects income dynamics and employment differently depending on individuals’ skill level, and analyzed the role of publicly funded childcare services in mitigating these differences. Her findings reveal that higher national investments in childcare mitigate the generally negative childbirth effect on income and employment especially for families with average skills. Her research suggests that social policies geared towards work-care reconciliation can help close the gap between the supply and demand of skills by reducing the gap in labour market opportunities across people of different skill levels.

Alina Felder (University of St. Gallen) talked about the trajectories of active labour market policies against the backdrop of different welfare state and skill formation regimes. The paper is joint work with Giuliano Bonoli (University of Lausanne) and Patrick Emmenegger (University of St. Gallen) and provides a trend towards dualisation, where states continue to rely on activation measures to increase incentives for benefit claimants to enter the labour market. Recent reform initiatives have created a parallel system aimed at addressing skills shortages that is only partially accessible to benefit claimants.

Katy Jones (Manchester Metropolitan University) focused on training pathways in an evolving UK Active Labour Market Policy context. Drawing on her “Universal Credit and Employers project”, which involved 124 interviews with employers and policy stakeholders, the paper considered the role that training plays (or should play) in UK ALMP development, which increasingly focuses on both work entry and progression.


Outlook: A research agenda to be continued

Overall, the research presented at the workshop shows that while the origins of education, skill formation, and social policies are different, they are converging in the quest to increase people’s skills and in the attempt to reconcile social inclusion with economic efficiency. The workshop contributions answer to a variety of research gaps and speak to scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds including political economists and social and education policy scholars. With the workshop we have set an intriguing and promising research agenda which will be further pursued in projects that explore different traditions, designers and implementing institutions of skill-shortage related measures. We would like to thank the ECPR Standing Group on Knowledge Politics and Policies for endorsing the workshop and for providing an interactive platform for discussing our research.



Bonoli, G. (2010) The Political Economy of Active Labor-Market Policy. Politics & Society 38 (4): 435–57. https://doi.org/10.1177/0032329210381235

Carstensen, M. & Emmenegger, P. (2023) Education as social policy: New tensions in maturing knowledge economies. Social Policy & Administration. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/spol.12888

Durazzi, N. & Geyer, L. (2022). Social inclusion and collective skill formation systems: Policy and politics. Journal of European Social Policy 32(1), 105-116. https://doi.org/10.1177/09589287211035699

Hemerijck, A. (2018) Social investment as a policy paradigm. Journal of European Public Policy 25 (6): 810–27. https://doi.org/10.1080/13501763.2017.1401111

Plavgo, I. (2023) Education and active labour market policy complementarities in promoting employment: Reinforcement, substitution and compensation. Social Policy & Administration. https://doi.org/10.1111/spol.12894

Warhurst, C. (2008) The knowledge economy, skills and government labour market intervention. Policy Studies 29 (1): 71–86 https://doi.org/10.1080/01442870701848053