Spain’s future prosperity depends on skills

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Spain is emerging from a challenging period. The good news is that the economy has returned to moderate growth and unemployment rates are falling. Yet Spain’s progress along the path to inclusive growth may well falter if steps are not taken today to boost skills outcomes.

Looking beyond today’s headlines lies the knowledge-based global economy of the future powered by skills and human capital. Without concerted efforts to improve Spain’s capacity to develop, activate and effectively use people’s skills, its companies will struggle to move up the global value chain and generate new jobs – while workers of all ages will be poorly equipped for fast-paced and innovative workplaces, and increasingly vulnerable to low-paid work or unemployment.

Yet skills affect more than just earnings and employment. Data from the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) show that in all participating countries, including Spain, adults with lower literacy proficiency are far more likely than those with better literacy skills to report poor health, to perceive themselves as objects rather than actors in political processes, and to place less trust in others. Put simply, a lack of proficiency in foundation skills prevents people from fully participating in society and democracy.

Spain is at a turning point. Now is the time to fully harness Spain’s economic potential, by developing the highly skilled workforce needed to support entrepreneurship, drive innovation and productivity while delivering inclusive growth for all.

Identifying skills challenges, together

In the course of 2014 and 2015, a multidisciplinary team of OECD experts worked in collaboration with seven Spanish ministries, all autonomous communities and a wide range of stakeholders to assess the challenges to building a more effective national skills strategy for Spain. Maintaining and building upon this unique whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach will be critical for addressing the challenges identified in the resulting OECD Skills Strategy Diagnostic Report: Spain.

Over the past decades, Spain has made significant progress in increasing participation in early childhood education and raising educational attainment levels. A number of recent reforms have aimed to improve school completion and student performance while also expanding participation in vocational education and training and building smoother pathways from education to the world of work. Spain has also introduced significant labour market reforms to reduce duality, increase flexibility and stimulate employment growth while enhancing the fiscal framework and boosting the business sector. State and regional governments have collaborated to achieve progress in all of these areas as well as in improving Spain’s science, technology and innovation system.

Yet challenges remain

Spain needs to continue its focus on improving the quality of skills developed while ensuring that they are relevant to the needs of the economy. Greater efforts are needed to reach out to the almost ten million Spanish adults with low levels of skills, who are vulnerable to displacement by technology and foreign competition. Reducing the early school leaving rate – which despite recent significant improvements remains the highest in the EU – can help to ensure that in the future more adults have the skills the need for success in the economy and society. At the same time, Spain needs to stimulate job growth and facilitate faster returns to work to ensure that the skills people develop are put to effective use – and to reduce skills atrophy that people experience when unemployed for long periods of time. Once in the workforce, workers need to be making greater use of their skills to drive productivity and innovation.

Spain’s 12 skills challenges 

Today, the results of the diagnostic phase of this collaborative project are published as the OECD Skills Strategy Diagnostic Report: Spain. At a launch event organised in Madrid, the main findings will be discussed by senior representatives drawn from participating ministries, the OECD and the European Commission in the presence of many stakeholders who took part in this journey to map Spain’s skills challenges.

With regard to developing relevant skills, the report concludes that Spain should focus its efforts on:

  • Improving the skills of students in compulsory education.
  • Ensuring that tertiary students develop high quality and job-relevant skills.
  • Improving the skills of low-skilled adults.

When it comes to activating its skills supply, Spain will need to tackle the challenges of:

  • Removing regulatory and tax barriers to hiring and worker activation.
  • Reintegrating unemployed people through targeted activation strategies.
  • Improving the transition of youth from education to stable employment.

Furthermore, Spain could make more effective use of the skills it has by:

  • Making full use of skills in the workplace to strengthen productivity and competitiveness.
  • Leveraging highly skilled individuals and universities to foster innovation and increase productivity and growth.

Finally, Spain could strengthen its overall skills system by: 

  • Improving and expanding access to high quality learning and labour market information.
  • Strengthening partnerships to improve skills outcomes.
  • Financing a more effective and efficient skills system.
  • Strengthening governance of the skills system.

Taking action on skills

The need for a whole of government approach to skills emerges clearly in the case of Spain. None of these skills challenges can be tackled by ministries working in isolation, nor can they be solved by government alone. Spain’s stakeholders and civil society will need to play a more active role in developing and implementing skills policies that deliver sustainable results over the long term.

Moving from diagnosis to action will require close coordination and greater efforts to measure progress and ensure accountability for results. In doing so, the OECD stands ready to support Spain as it designs and implements better skills policies for better jobs and better lives.

OECD Skills Strategy Diagnostic Report: Spain
OECD Skills Strategy Diagnostic Report: Spain (Spanish version)
OECD Press Release: Spain’s future prosperity depends on raising skill levels and removing barriers to employment
OECD Press Release: El futuro prospero de espana pasa por mejorar el nivel de competencias de la poblacion y eliminar los obstaculos a la creacion de empleo
Executive Summary (English)
Executive Summary (Spanish)
OECD Skills Strategy
Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC)
OECD Skills Outlook 2015: Youth, Skills and Employability
For more on skills and skills policies around the world, visit:
See also the country page on skills for Spain
Photo credit: Large group of people gathered together in the shape of growing graph arrow @Shutterstock

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