If Carl von Linné was alive today he'd have given a nod of recognition to the European ESCO project. It aims to create a taxonomy of occupations.

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An open EU labour market needs common occupational classifications

Sweden has been leading an ambitious EU project to translate more than 5,000 job titles and related terms into 22 languages. The project also describes the qualifications needed to get these jobs. This common 'encyclopedia' for working life aims to improve cross-border labour market mobility.

Mar 03, 2010 | 24.02.2010 | Text: Björn Lindahl

The project is called ESCO - short for 'European taxonomy of Skills, Competences and Occupations terminology'. It will be launched in March and should be up and running this summer.

"Today different countries' job centres classify a job seeker in different ways. European job centres don't speak the same language. This makes it harder to find the right job for the right person," says Elisabet Arp, head of international affairs at the Swedish Public Employment Service.  

Most developed countries have a standard occupational classification. In Sweden it is called SSYK (standard for Swedish occupational classification), and it assigns a numeric code to each occupation. The first problem you run into when trying to describe an occupation is whether it should be classified according to what a person is trained to do, or according to what the person actually does in that job. The Swedish occupational classification bases its classification on the type of work being done. 

According to Cedefop, a European centre for the development of vocational training, only 21 percent of EU workers have a job which completely fits their qualifications and competence. The rest are more or less mismatched.

11 percent lower wages 

When you have a mismatch between a person's qualifications and his or her job, the employee takes home on average 11 percent less than what they should have earned. People can be over or under qualified for their job, or they can be in a job for which they have no formal education at all. The better a person's qualifications and competence fit their job, the more efficient that person can be. This in turn leads to more economic growth and improved wellbeing for the worker. 

Sometimes there is also a mismatch between the education system and future demands from working life. 'New skills for new jobs' has become an important subject of debate as a result. 

"This is one of the main points of conversation when Director-Generals and other heads of European employment services meet. How do you make prognosis for what qualifications will be needed in the future, and how do we prepare people to get them?" says Elisabet Arp.

It is perhaps fitting that it is Sweden, the native country of Carl von Linné, which is preparing the ground for a joint European occupational classification. Just like the botanist scientifically classified plants and animals according to their lineage and species, an occupation can be classified according to what classifications and competence a person has. 

Not a new Esperanto

"Someone who's studied journalism might also be a specialist on fisheries. That is competence. The European debate has tried to find out how wide we should throw the net. The French, for instance, have created their own occupational classification where competence is also a factor," says Elisabet Arp.

The debate's conclusion was that in the early stages of ESCO, the system will limit its focus to qualifications and the translation of occupational terms. That should secure a smoother running of the project.

"A decision was taken in December to take the Swedish project further. But there will be no attempt to create a 'working life Esperanto', where all occupational terms are the same. The main aim is to create interoperability between European systems. When we launch ESCO in Brussels in March we will invite trade union reps, employers and educators as well as employment services. 

"ESCO will be a very useful tool for all of these groups," says Elisabet Arp.