Adult lifetime skills: a literature review

A literature review on adult lifetime skills.

Executive Summary

This report presents the results from a literature review that was carried out to inform the Scottish Government's development of a lifetime skills offer. Following the anticipated scope of the lifetime skills offer, the focus of the literature review is on adult work-based learning and retraining opportunities for those already in work.

The aims of the literature review include:

  • to review the available published academic literature and policy / practice evidence on adult upskilling and retraining opportunities in Scotland;
  • to gain an understanding of how Scotland's approach to lifelong learning compares to that taken in other countries, focusing on lessons that Scotland can learn;
  • to understand the role skills and training play in alleviating poverty, and specifically child poverty, in Scotland; and
  • assess what we know about the impact of current skills provision in Scotland on equalities.

The literature review, carried out between September and November 2022, yielded a sample of over 200 sources. From this the 92 most relevant reports and papers were reviewed in full (determined by a review of the document abstract, summary or introduction). A thematic analysis was carried out, identifying key themes from the literature and drawing these together to write this report.

The review found that while literature on the benefits of, and barriers to lifelong learning is plentiful, evidence on the strengths and weaknesses of the Scottish skills system is less forthcoming. The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) provides some helpful evidence on lessons learned from outside Scotland and in the international context. Less literature was found on the impact of the skills system on poverty and equalities, including Scottish specific evidence.

The key findings from the literature review are:

Benefits of lifelong learning

  • Literature on the benefits of lifelong learning was plentiful, with the evidence showing that there are economic and social benefits of lifelong learning, as well as wellbeing benefits for the individual.
  • The economic benefits of lifelong learning are cited as including higher earnings and positive labour market outcomes, while wellbeing and social benefits include increased self-confidence and increased social capital.

Barriers to lifelong learning

  • Literature on the barriers to lifelong learning was also forthcoming.
  • Barriers are highlighted as dispositional (where an individual's attitudes and expectations limit participation); situational (where an individual's personal circumstances limit participation, being unable to afford training for example); and institutional (where structural and organisational factors limit access to training).

Strengths and weaknesses of the Scottish skills system

  • Only limited evidence on the strengths and weaknesses of the Scottish skills system was found during the literature search.
  • While literature on the strengths of the Scottish skills system is limited, flexibility is cited as a strength, including a flexible further education system which allows colleges to respond to the demands of their local labour market. The apprenticeship system in Scotland is also highlighted as a strength in the literature.
  • Again, literature on the weaknesses of the Scottish skills system is limited. Where this does exist it tends to focus on Scotland's low productivity, as well highlighting a skills system that has an emphasis on young people and experiences wider challenges such as automation and an ageing population.

International literature

  • Individual learning accounts, career guidance and digital learning were highlighted as areas in which some other countries do well. The evidence on micro-credentials is still emerging and tends to be more mixed.
  • The international literature also provides some general lessons for lifetime skills, work-based learning, upskilling and retraining. These include: the importance of awareness raising and accessible opportunities; the need for stakeholder engagement and for government, employers, training providers and stakeholders to work in partnership; the importance of overcoming barriers to learning; and the need to ensure quality training provision.
  • Specific examples of workplace training are provided for the following countries: Singapore, Denmark, Finland, Estonia and New Zealand. However, the country search did not find any evaluations that provide robust evidence of impact or what works combined with a clear analysis of why.

Poverty and child poverty

  • Limited evidence was found on the role of skills and training in alleviating poverty and child poverty, including any Scottish specific evidence. Where literature was found, this tends to focus on in-work poverty.
  • Employers in a small-scale qualitative research study, identified training and in-work progression as a means of providing a route to better jobs for employees and a route out of poverty (Findlay et al, 2019).
  • Through secondary data analysis of two large-scale British longitudinal datasets (the British Household Panel Survey / Understanding Society and Longitudinal Education Outcomes), the Social Mobility Commission (2020) find that one of the key factors that had a significant influence on pay progression was the total days of training.
  • The literature search found only sparse literature on skills and child poverty. One example is provided by the Learning and Work Institute (2016) who cite evidence which shows the intergenerational importance of skills and find that if parents participate in learning and improve their skills, this can help their children to achieve better outcomes. In Scottish-specific qualitative research on in-work progression and training, overcoming childcare barriers is highlighted as one way to help alleviate child poverty (Yaqoob and Shahnaz, 2021).


  • The literature relating to the impact of current skills provision on equalities is sparse. The majority of studies found are small scale and qualitative in nature or secondary analysis on large-scale datasets. Only one Scottish specific example was found, focusing on older workers and drawing on statistical analysis of the Annual Population Survey and Labour Force Survey data for Scotland.
  • Where literature was found this was often focused on the barriers to lifelong learning or adult education and training that different equalities group face. For example, digital barriers and barriers to online learning were cited in the literature.
  • Looking at the evidence on sex in particular, affordable childcare is seen to be a potential barrier for women's participation in work, study or training. Occupational segregation is one theme that emerges in the literature around skills and sex.
  • Where literature was found on age, this tends to focus on older workers. Workplace flexibility and targeted training opportunities are highlighted as key strategies by which to achieve success in upskilling older workers.
  • No specific research was found on the impact of skills provision on race / ethnicity, and the research evidence on disability was similarly sparse.

Potential policy implications from the literature review include:

  • Lifetime skills is an important policy area for Scotland, as shown through the benefits of lifelong learning cited in the literature. The flexibility of the current system is an important strength and should be maintained.
  • As part of ongoing policy development, it may be helpful to consider how to increase awareness and use of skills related initiatives amongst employers, and explore with employers what works best / less well.
  • Similarly, ensuring that people know what training and lifelong learning is available, the value it can bring, how they can access it and any costs / financial support to take part, would help to increase awareness of training amongst employees.
  • The international literature highlights the importance of working in partnership across government, employers, training providers and stakeholders. This suggests that working collaboratively with employers and stakeholders to explore how best to encourage employer investment in upskilling and retraining would be beneficial.
  • The importance of high quality and flexible training support also emerged as themes in the literature. While the provision of high quality training is important for all, flexible training support could be particularly beneficial for people facing childcare barriers or older workers, for example.
  • A key gap in the literature is the experiences of different equalities groups of the skills system in Scotland. An understanding of the different segments of the Scottish workforce was largely absent from the literature search, which could be the subject of further research and analysis.
  • While the evidence on microcredentials is still emerging and at this early stage is mixed, it does highlight the importance of ensuring a framework that is consistent and is of a high quality standard.



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