Adult lifetime skills: a literature review

A literature review on adult lifetime skills.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current adult skills system in Scotland?

Key points

  • 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.


In a policy discussion paper, Callander et al (2018) explore what success would look like for a 21st century Scottish skills system. They suggest that the following aspects would represent success:

(1) the potential of all people in Scotland is maximised and realised;

(2) a greater number of people engaged in meaningful learning throughout their lives;

(3) the skills system can respond to automation through a system focused on developing resilience, skills and competencies amongst learners;

(4) the skills system responds to ageing by working with learners and employers to get the most out of the remaining working-age population;

(5) greater numbers of employers invest and engage in the skills system;

(6) there is a proactive and responsive skill system that reflects employer's and learner's needs at the local, regional and national level, in content, delivery and strategy;

(7) the skills system contributes to inclusive economic growth that narrows social inequalities;

(8) a skills system focused on driving increases in progression, pay and productivity rates;

(9) a more flexible skills system with learning routes from intense bursts of learning to long-term, low-intensity learning; and

(10) a coherent skills system, with reduced duplication, based on collaboration not competition.

This section looks at the strengths and weaknesses of the current adult skills system in Scotland. The terms 'strengths' and 'weaknesses' were included in the research questions and adopted as keywords during the literature search. Hence they are reported here.


Scotland's skills system is underpinned by a number of Government programmes, including the National Strategy for Economic Transformation (NSET), as discussed in the introduction to this report, and Scotland's Future Skills Action Plan. The Future Skills Action Plan recognises that education and skills are important drivers of economic growth and productivity (Scottish Government, 2019). The recently published Adult Learning Strategy includes a vision and principles for Scotland, including that "adult learning in Scotland will develop better skilled, educated, confident and empowered people, contributing to connected and inclusive communities" (Scottish Government, 2022).

While the literature on the strengths of the Scottish skills system is limited, some strengths do emerge from the evidence available. Scotland's Future Skills Action Plan notes that flexibility is something that the Scottish skills system is seen to do well in, citing a particularly flexible further education system which allows colleges to respond to the demands of their local labour market. Through a review of the policy literature, Gallacher and Reeve (2019) echo this, finding strengths with the regional college framework which has been established in Scotland and Regional Outcome Agreements (ROAs) which are used to shape college provision and direct funding. They do, however cite that there is little clear evidence of any substantial progress towards ROA's focus on opportunities for work placements or work-based learning.

The OECD (2020) highlight the apprenticeship system in Scotland as particularly strong, finding that Scotland has made "remarkable progress", although they do note that improvements could be made to increase its responsiveness, quality and flexibility. Their report, based on a review of available evidence, finds that headline indicators for Modern Apprenticeships, including labour market outcomes and student and employer satisfaction, are positive. They find that Foundation and Graduate Apprenticeships have been successfully launched and the role of meta-skills in apprenticeships pursued. They recommend that the key principles of apprenticeships, that underpin its historic resilience, should be sustained and reinforced and that the system should build capacity to respond to change including effective lifelong learning in an adult-friendly and agile system.

In a more recent report by the OECD (2022), they reiterate their findings on the strengths of Scotland's apprenticeship system, stating that it has "become one of the most flexible and wide ranging systems in the OECD", demonstrated, for example, by both apprenticeship starts and positive outcomes for participants.

Kelly et al (2020) also find that the Graduate Apprenticeship (GA) model has achieved early success. They note that GAs have changed the ways that businesses can recruit, re-skill and upskill employees to respond to their evolving needs. Moreover, they are structured to provide a streamlined approach which ensures that academic skills either build upon existing knowledge of procedures or are developed in parallel with them.

Other strengths noted in the literature include: Scotland's energy and finance sectors; its educated workforce and its renowned group of world-leading universities (Tsoukalas, 2021).

Recent evaluations conducted on two of Scotland's skills programmes, the Flexible Workforce Development Fund (FWDF) and Individual Training Accounts (ITAs) show further strengths within specific programmes that are part of the Scottish skills system. The FWDF was established in September 2017 to provide employers with flexible workforce development opportunities. In an evaluation conducted by EKOS (2023) it was found that the Fund was largely working well and is delivering against its purpose. The Fund was considered by stakeholder groups participating in the evaluation to be a much needed and valued intervention. Employer satisfaction with their engagement with the FWDF was high, for example 92% of the 203 employers surveyed felt that the FWDF had led to a more skilled workforce. Employee respondents also reported benefits, including: increased knowledge, further development of skills and help with being more effective in current role.

The FWDF offer in Scotland is in addition to Individual Training Accounts (ITAs), which support eligible individuals to take up learning opportunities to support their skills for employment. Evidence gathered by SQW as part of an evaluation of the programme, showed that it is working well, with most participants and providers reporting satisfaction with the delivery experience and outcomes gained. Most participants said that they would not have undertaken training without the ITA funding. There was also evidence that ITAs helped people to find new and better jobs, with over half of those surveyed agreeing that their ITA had helped them find a new job and over half of those unemployed before applying for their ITA were in work after training. Two in five people surveyed, who were working full time, reported that their ITA had helped them find a better paying job (SQW, 2023).

The 2021 Scottish Employer Perspectives Survey (Scottish EPS) provides some evidence on the perceptions of employers as users of the skills system. The Scottish EPS is a large-scale telephone survey of employers in Scotland. It provides information on how employers engage with the skills system in Scotland. Commissioned by the Scottish Government, IFF Research surveyed 1,000 employers in Scotland between November and December 2021. The survey provides some notable strengths around recruitment directly from education and the preparedness for work of education leavers. 35% of employers had recruited an employee to their first job directly from education. This is an increase from 30% in 2019. Furthermore, the majority of employers find their education leavers to be 'well' or 'very well' prepared for work. That is 68% of employers said that school leavers were well or very well prepared (an increase from 58% in 2019); 78% of employers said that college leavers were well or very well prepared (increase from 74% in 2019); and 80% of employers said that university leavers were well or very well prepared (78% in 2019). There is also evidence of some strengths around apprenticeships, with 40% of employers planning to either continue offering or start offering apprenticeships in the future. This is an increase from 26% of employers reporting this in 2019 and 25% in 2016. In terms of training, 70% of employers provided training to their staff in the preceding year, the same proportion as in 2019.

Zemanik (2022) reports the results of a YouGov survey of 1,035 workers in Scotland, which asked respondents about fair work and was weighted to be representative of Scottish working adults (aged 18 plus). They found that 55% of respondents felt that their job offers good opportunities to develop their skills. The availability of training opportunities was identified as a career progression enabler, as well as a barrier.


Literature on the weaknesses of the current adult skills system in Scotland is also relatively sparse, however, some weaknesses and challenges were found. A recurring weakness reported is productivity, with some reports noting Scotland's relatively low productivity and continuing productivity challenge (Scottish Government, 2019; Tsoukalas, 2021; Kelly, 2018; Thomas and Gunson, 2017). In his evidence review, Tsoukalas (2021) notes that there are large variations in productivity at a regional level within Scotland, with Glasgow for example having lower productivity compared to Edinburgh.

Kelly et al (2018) show that Scotland's productivity challenge has a range of aspects in addition to skills, for example business investment is relatively low, as is research and development spending and Scotland has a high concentration of small, lower productivity firms. However, Kelly et al (2018) also note that workers may improve their productivity by being more highly skilled or trained, by having access to new technology or by using more efficient processes.

A recent report published by the CIPD suggests that graduate overqualification and skills mismatch in the Scottish labour market has an impact on productivity in the workplace. Zemanik (2022) analyses Labour Force Survey data from 1992 and 2022 as well as CIPD survey data from 2020, 2021 and 2022 covering 1,937 Scottish working-age respondents. The report finds that the number of graduate roles in the Scottish and UK labour markets is not increasing at the same rate as the number of graduates entering the job market. Therefore, many graduates are ending up in non-graduate roles. The data examined also suggests that the job quality experiences of those graduates who feel overqualified for their roles are poorer than for those graduates who feel their qualifications match their roles. This has an impact on job satisfaction, performance and individual wellbeing, which, in turn, is linked to organisational productivity. Zemanik (2022) offer a number of recommendations including employers investing more in learning and development as well as providing sufficient time and training for people managers to manage employees well.

Further criticisms of the current adult skills system in Scotland highlighted in the literature include:

  • It is not clear what progress has been made on the ground level establishing relationships between employers and colleges (Gallacher and Reeve, 2019).
  • There has been a lack of provision for lifelong learning, with a recent focus on young people, and an argument that more attention should be given to adults (OECD, 2020; Callander et al, 2018).
  • A lack of awareness by employers of upskilling initiatives (Scottish EPS 2021, CIPD, 2022a).

In their evidence review, Callander et al (2018) find that the main challenges facing Scotland's skills system are improving the quality of work, automation, artificial intelligence, new advances in analytics and technological change, and an ageing population. They argue that Scotland's lifelong learning offer should have fully flexible provision, from "intense bursts of learning to very part-time learning, modular and tailered specifically to learner choices and employer needs… placing learners at the heart of the new lifelong learning provision".

Callender et al (2018) also highlight a lack of provision for mid-career learning. Echoing Callender et al's (2018) criticisms of a lack of provision for mid-career progress is Thomas and Gunson (2017) who, in their evidence review, find that Scotland has relatively low rates of in-work progression, with much of the skills system focussing on early or pre-career learning. Further challenges noted by Thomas and Gunson (2017) are tecnological changes, such as automation, which will mean that some traditional jobs will become deskilled as new jobs emerge; demographic change, which will see an increase in the number of older people in the population and a shrinking in the working age population; and decarbonisation which is likely to affect Scotland's oil and gas industry in particular. In their evidence review, Thomas and Gunson (2017) find that workers with the lowest levels of skills are less likely to see investment from employers than more highly skilled workers. They also suggest that a key weakness of the current skills system is insufficient flexibility and transferability of learning, which is required as people now experience multiple employers and different types of jobs. A final criticisim cited in their review is overlaps, duplications and inefficiencies in the skills system, which can be confusing for employers and employees / learners.

Once again, the Scottish EPS 2021 provides some insight into employers use of the skills system and where there are challenges in engagement with external workplace training specifically. The Scottish EPS 2021 found that while 62% of employers had provided internal training in the past 12 months, similar to levels in 2019 (60%) and 2016 (63%); in contrast, 44% had provided external training over the past 12 months, a decrease on 2019 levels (49%) (Scottish Government, 2021).

The Scottish EPS 2021 also found some challenges around awareness and use of skills schemes or initiatives. Prompted initiatives that employers were most familiar with were ITAs and the Partnership Action for Continuing Employment (PACE), 17% and 16% were aware respectively. Around one in ten (11%) of employers were aware of the FWDF. Use was lower than awareness levels. Use of the FWDF (2% of employers) and ITAs (2% of employers) was the most common, followed by PACE (1% of employers had used PACE).

The Scottish Employer Skills Survey (Scottish ESS) 2020 is a large-scale telephone survey and provides some evidence on the skills challenges faced by employers in Scotland. The 2020 survey had a sample of 3,497 employers in Scotland. Of particular relevance here are results on upskilling, which is defined as "the anticipated need among employers that staff will need to acquire new skills over the next twelve months". Overall, just under three-quarters (74%) of employers had any upskilling needs among their workforce. The proportion of employers needing to upskill any staff was higher in 2020 (74%) than in 2017 (69%). Changing workplace practices as a result of COVID-19 was the most common reason for a need for upskilling. This was followed by new legislative or regulatory requirements and the introduction of new technologies or equipment.



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