How can Europe's cities ensure their citizens have the right skills?

Some upskilling taking place in a vocational college. Image: Getty.

Creating new jobs only goes so far towards addressing unemployment: people need the skills to do these jobs. And our fast-paced labour market means the skills to keep up are changing constantly.  

This is an urban challenge: cities are hubs of knowledge, innovation and industry. City authorities are in tune with the needs of local labour markets and citizens. They can identify and predict skills shortages, and ensure the right skills are being developed. This is especially true for those who find it hardest to find a job, like vulnerable groups and young people.  

It is in cities where new approaches can be tried and tested. Rotterdam was the first city in continental Europe to use a social impact bond, a relatively new financial mechanism based on a “pay for success” model, to address youth unemployment. Buzinezzclub offers a full package of support that has helped hundreds of young people gain the skills needed to realise their career goals and get off benefits for good. Projects like these can make a real impact on Europe’s unemployment levels – especially if national governments and the EU institutions work with cities to scale up and capitalise on their success.

Young people and the most disadvantaged people in society have been hardest hit by the employment crisis. Phenomena such as the “gig economy”, where independent workers are contracted to complete specific jobs, and crowdsourcing work, are on the rise.


But low-skilled workers can find it difficult to access this kind of work, which also threatens a “race to the bottom” in terms of income. This is a challenge for local authorities, who need to ensure these approaches benefit all involved.

We have witnessed a huge transition in our cities over the course of EUROCITIES’ 30 year history. The end of mass manufacturing in the 1980s left many cities in decline, while the emergence of concepts like the circular, green, sharing and knowledge economies in recent years has brought with it the need for brand new skills.

Cities need to keep ahead of the game. The green economy, for example, is one of the few sectors that continued to grow despite the economic crisis, and cities are seizing this opportunity. Glasgow operates a “green wardens” scheme to train and employ people in various greening and sustainability projects in the council’s core services. This is aimed at people who have been out of work for a long time, left school without qualifications, or have been discharged from the armed forces.

Investment in skills needs to start locally, and must meet local needs. In Ghent, the city carried out a study to assess the needs of local employers now and in future. It has helped the authorities to better understand the impact of disruptive technologies, changing demographics, globalisation and other factors on local employers, and forms part of a demand-driven approach to skills development.

Some cities offer training adapted to local needs, or provide support to jobseekers. Brighton & Hove operates the Brighton Employability Advice and Careers Hut, for example, a collaboration between local schools and employers to design an employability hub for young people.

Many cities take advantage of diverse networks to draw up programmes working with schools, educational institutes, social services, NGOs and local employers. Malmo is one such city, having recently set up partnerships with six civil society organisations to provide training and skills development and training, and to put in place measures to support labour market inclusion. This approach is being recognised at European level too, with the European Commission’s New Skills Agenda for Europe, launched in June this year, mentioning the importance of partnerships at local level.  

The work is happening in cities, but the impact goes much further. European cities are keen to scale up their success. We hope this might soon become a reality, with the launch of a new urban agenda partnership on jobs and skills by the European Commission early next year. This tests a new way of working between cities, national governments and the EU institutions, with the aim of guiding better policies and funding for the local level.

The impact of this, we hope, will be that cities are better prepared to face future challenges, to the benefit all European citizens. 

Anna Lisa Boni is secretary general of EUROCITIES.

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To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.