Skills for the future of mountain value chains in Europe

by | Dec 19, 2023 | MOVING

Emilia Schmitt (UCO) and Kirsty Blackstock (HUTTON), adapted from a contribution at the Forum for Origin, Diversity and Territories, Chania, 2023 and a key-note speech at the Euromontana conference “Skills for Mountains in Transitions” in Brussels, 2023

2023 was elected the European Year of Skills (EYS), aiming “to address skills shortages in the EU and give a fresh impetus to lifelong learning, empowering people and companies to contribute to the green and digital transitions, supporting innovation and competitiveness.” At the end of the EYS , two recent forums involving MOVING researchers and stakeholders addressed this topic so it is a great opportunity to reflect on identified needs for future-proof skills for sustainable mountain value chains.

The EYS wants to strengthen digital, ‘green’ and innovative skills, for youth and people seeking a reorientation in their careers. These skills are necessary for a sustainable transition, and particularly in mountain regions which are directly dealing with stronger impacts of climate change and slower digitalization. Unsurprisingly, MOVING regions mentioned challenges of generational renewal and it seems that finding skilled workers for processing, (butchering, cheese-making, processing oil or alcohol) can be even more problematic, with rippling effects such as business closures, sometimes leading to less attractive regions with even more depopulation and the downgrading of primary production as a viable livelihood.

All 23 MOVING mountain regions mention the crucial role of knowledge and skills in value chain practices at production, processing, distribution and marketing stages. Mountain regions seek to preserve manual techniques for the sake of cultural heritage within traditional value chains, creating an interplay between traditional and modern skills for the young people needed to take over farms, artisan shops, hospitality, and forestry work, etc. Digitalisation can be a driver of modernisation and enable remote working and it also links distant consumers to mountain-based products and services. Digitalisation is also the new way to bring education programs into marginal places such as mountains. However, is it the main trend that should define skills development?

Rapidly evolving markets necessitate new skills in digital marketing, logistics management, trade, new certification and legislation, new technologies and dynamic product demand management. These are all skills mentioned in the regions’ reports, in addition to agricultural knowledge and skills. Our research also draws attention to relational as well as digital skills, such as “network building, representation and lobbying” and “conflict resolution, support and advice”. When these skills rest on the shoulders of a few people, we see how capacity building in mountain areas can be particularly challenging.

A few regions indeed showcased examples of persons tackling many challenges through diversification, innovations and/or certifications. Although acknowledged as more sustainable practices, diversification and operating in alternative networks often rely on a few pioneers or small committees within value chains, who have these often intangible network building and relationship skills. All regions consistently highlighted the importance of relational skills to manage networks, and support exchanges of experiences that is tailored to their territories. In many cases, cooperatives, organic, slow food or PDO associations, fulfil this role and become essential knowledge brokers.

During the MOVING workshop “Unlocking the power of mountain value chains” in November 2023 in Hungary. we discussed challenges and solutions for mountain value chains. The role and skills of these key-actors for mountain value chains development emerged strongly -when considering these solutions in terms of necessary skills.  Of the 35 solutions collected with stakeholders, 13 are linked to bottom-up empowerment and participatory processes (37%). More specifically, one can group them into the categories of skills needed as:

  • Knowledge sharing and facilitation
  • Cohesion and collaboration skills
  • Pioneering, offering perspectives and vision
  • Communication and story-telling
  • Leadership for bottom-up, participatory approaches

“Digitalisation” issues were rarely mentioned, and when digital skills were mentioned, it was to highlight the support needed for bottom-up approaches to building sustainable value chains. To have appropriate skill acquisition, the training of advisors, farmers, etc. should be “fit for mountain production” and vocational training flexible and “delivered at local level in response to specific local needs”.

It thus looks like mountain value chains primarily need people with the soft skills to act as facilitators of the networks within and between value chains. Digital skills are tools to reinforce and serve communities in their efforts to transform towards environmental sustainability rather than the endpoint. As summarized by the MOVING Podcast, networking to care for the mountain communities could be one of the most important skills for mountain resilience. If a link is missing, these networks could collapse, even if the technical skills are present. It would thus make sense to reinforce the social component in the drive for more digital and green skills to maximise the potential of Europe’s mountains.