20. Skills and Employability

Sustainable Development

Decent work

Economy Social Environment Employment Protection Rights Dialogue
Relevant SDG Targets
4.3, 4.4, 4.5, 8.6, 8.b
Relevant Policy Outcomes

On this page: DWA-SDG Relationship | Cross-cutting policy drivers | Partnerships | ILO Capacity | Resources

Breaking the vicious circle of poor education, low productivity and persistent poverty is crucial for promoting inclusive economic growth and decent jobs for all. Education, as well as being an end in itself, is also a means to getting a decent job, especially for young people, while lifelong learning is indispensable in order to keep up with the changing skills needed for the labour market. Skills development is therefore an essential prerequisite for sustainable development (57). It can also contribute to facilitating the transition from the informal to the formal economy. Skills development is also essential to address the opportunities and challenges to meet new demands of changing economies and new technologies in the context of globalization (58).

Governments, wokers' and employers' organizations around the world are working to improve the employability of workers, move young people into productive employment and decent work, and increase the productivity of enterprises through better quality and relevant training. The ILO conducts comparative research and provides policy guidelines and technical assistance to help constituents integrate skills development into national and sector-specific development strategies.

Skills development strategies are high on the priority list of countries in all stages of development, for at least three reasons:
  • Skills matching : to better forecast and match the provision of skills, both in terms of relevance and quality, with labour market needs;
  • Skills upgrading : to adjust skills development programmes and institutions to technological developments and changes in labour markets so that workers and enterprises can move from shrinking, low-productivity economic sectors and professions to expanding, high-productivity sectors and occupations. Such adaptation requires permanent and regular re-skilling, skills upgrading and lifelong learning for workers to maintain their employability and enterprises to remain competitive; and
  • Skills for society : to build up capabilities and knowledge systems within the economy and society which induce and maintain a sustainable process of economic and social development. 
The ILO's work on skills development has in recent years focused primarily on three areas:
  • linking training to current labour market needs as well as anticipating and building competencies for the jobs of the future;
  • building quality apprenticeship systems and incorporating core skills into training for young people; and expanding access to employment-related training in rural communities to improve livelihoods, and reduce poverty; and
  • equipping women and men to work in the formal economy.40
In addition, the ILO has developed special programmes on skills and employability for disadvantaged groups and poverty reduction, as well as on “Skills for Trade and Economic Diversification” (STED).

ILO’s skills development activities and programmes are guided by the Human Resources Development Convention, 1975 (No.142), (ratified by 68 countries), the Human Resources Development Recommendation, 2004 (No.195), and the Conclusions on skills for improved productivity, employment growth and development adopted by the ILC in 2008, as well as the Conclusions on the youth employment crisis adopted by the ILC in 2012. In addition, many other ILO instruments and policy guidelines contain references to skills development, education and vocational training41.

DWA-SDG Relationship

“Education, or the transmission, acquisition, creation and adaptation of information, knowledge, skills and values, is a key lever of sustainable development. This is based on a vision of inclusive societies in which all citizens have equitable opportunities to access effective and relevant learning throughout life delivered through multiple formal, non-formal and informal settings” (59). Consequently, SDG 4 on education includes two targets on skills development, namely target 4.3 (equal access for all women and men to affordable quality technical, vocational and tertiary education), and 4.4 (number of youth and adults who have relevant skills for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship). In addition, skills development is indispensable for the achievement of target 8.6 (by 2020 substantially reduce the proportion of youth not in employment, education or training) and 8.b (youth employment). Skills development is also crucial for the achievement of SDG 5 (gender equality), as well as SDG target 4.5 (gender disparities in education).

In the same vein, skills development is of essential importance to the Decent Work Agenda and the promotion of productive employment; the preamble to the Constitution establishes ILO’s mandate in “the organization of vocational and technical education”, and skills development has been at the core of the ILO’s technical services. However, it is recognized that “skills development will not by itself lead to improved productivity and employment. Other critical factors include employment and productivity policies to influence the demand side of the labour market, respect for workers’ rights, gender equality, and health and safety standards; good labour relations and social dialogue; and effective social protection.” (58).

Cross-cutting policy drivers

As a fundamental human right enshrined in several international normative frameworks,42 and built into most national legislation, the right to education is to be seen as an enabling right for the realization of other economic, social and cultural rights, as well as a catalyst for positive societal change, social justice and peace. As mentioned above, skills development is also the subject of several ILO instruments (59).

Gender inequality hampers decent employment and inclusive growth. Moreover, enabling women to participate equally with men in economic life has been proven to have a positive impact on children’s health and education. Thus, inclusive mobilization of all human capabilities can lead to more equitable economic growth. Women still face more barriers to education and training especially in rural, informal and traditional economies. These barriers are targeted in SDG 5 and in target 4.5 (60).

The design and implementation of skills development programmes must be anchored in effective social dialogue processes and mechanisms to avoid possible mismatches between demand and supply in the labour market, and to ensure that the content of vocational and technical training is constantly updated in line with technological progress.

The transition to a low carbon economy will not be possible without investing in education and skills training. Technological change and the need for more eco-friendly production and consumption practices require governments and enterprises to invest in skills training that support sustainable development, including in agricultural production. This aspect is covered in SDG 4.7 (57).


Development partners such as the World Bank, the EU, Canada, Korea and Norway, but also private sector organizations such as the MasterCard Foundation, support ILO’s skills development programmes in different countries of the world. The ILO was instrumental in assisting the G20 in developing a common training strategy named “A Skilled Workforce for Strong, Sustainable and Balanced Growth”, which was adopted by the G20 leaders in 2011. The strategy provided the foundation for a large-scale ILO skills development programme in Russia, financed by the Russian government. The ILO is a member of the Global Apprenticeships Network (GAN), established as a coalition of companies, international organizations and business and employers’ federations who create work-readiness programmes for youth and foster skills for business. An Inter-Agency Group on Technical and Vocational Education and Training (IAG-TVET) was set up in 2008 to ensure coordination of activities by the key international organizations involved in TVET. It enhances knowledge-sharing and a common understanding of key issues. The IAG has led inter-agency work on skills indicators, greening TVET and skills anticipation; the group comprises UNESCO, the ILO, the OECD and the World Bank WB, as well as the African, Asian and Islamic Development Banks, the European Commission and the European Training Foundation. - At the national level the ILO participates in joint UN programmes and donor coordination mechanisms focusing on education and skills development.

ILO Capacity

The primary ILO unit responsible for skills development is the Skills and Employability Branch under the Employment Policy Department; ten technical skills development specialists work in various Decent Work technical teams around the globe. In addition, the ILO can rely on the capacity and outreach of the International Training Centre in Turin which has become a global center of excellence in the area of vocational education and training. The ILO is also in charge of the management of the Inter-American Centre for Knowledge Development in Vocational Training (CINTERFOR).

It must be stressed that, apart from these specialized units and institutions, virtually any ILO technical unit and all ILO technical specialists are involved in specific training activities related to their particular area of expertise. Moreover, all ILO development cooperation projects include training, education and skills development activities.


The most comprehensive collection of ILO (and non-ILO) data, tools and information on skills development can be found under the “Skills for Employment Knowledge Sharing Platform” which is designed as a global public-private initiative. Moreover, the ITC Turin maintains a large collection of learning resources, documents and toolkits at its resource center.

40 - The main vehicle for this programme is known under the acronym “TREE” : Training for rural employment and empowerment.

41 - For example: C088 - Employment Services with 90 ratifications; C111 - Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) and associated R168 - Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (disabled); C122 - Employment Policy, 109 ratifications; C140 - Paid Educational Leave, 35 ratifications; C159 - Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (disabled persons), 172 ratifications, and associated R099 - Vocational Rehabilitation (disabled); R088 - Vocational Training (adults); C181 - Private Employment Agencies, 30 ratifications.

42 - Such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (art. 26), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (art. 13), as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (art. 28).

57. ILO. ILO SDG Note on Skills Development. Geneva : ILO, 2016.

58. ILC. Conclusions on skills for improved productivity, employment growth and development. Geneva : ILO, 2008.

59. UNESCO. Education and skills for inclusive and sustainable development beyond 2015. New York : UN Sytem Task team on the post-2015 UN development agenda, 2012.

60. ILO. ILO SDG Note on Skills for Employment. Geneva : ILO Skills, 2016.