SPECIAL REPORT / Although ICT experts disagree on how big the future skills gap in the sector will be, they are convinced that employers need to tackle the issue today through better training programmes, better start-up environments, and recruiting more women.
The past years’ financial crisis is still reflected in the overall unemployment rate in the EU’s 28 member states which at the start of the year was at around 10%. In Greece, however, the unemployment rate is closer to 30% and in Spain, one in four is unemployment. The figures for youth unemployment are even more devastating; 59.2% and 54.3%, in those two countries, respectively.
At the same time, digitisation created six million jobs globally in 2011, despite the economic downturn, as ICT is widely adopted in all corners of society. Experts believe a new wave of big data and smartphone applications has the highest potential in terms of job creation.
Filling the gaps
Moreover, the ICT sector will be in a desperate need for skilled workers, according to experts. But how big the skills gap will be is impossible to forecast in an ever-changing business environment. Last year, the European Commission said the EU would lack 700,000 workers in the ICT sector by 2015.
Since then the consultancy Empirica has predicted that about 900,000 jobs should remain unfilled by 2020, mostly in the higher-end segment of the market, a figure that may vary according to the pace of the recovery.
John Higgins, director general of DigitalEurope, an industry trade group, cautioned not to over-simplify forecasts, saying employment issues in the sector are much more sophisticated, with situations varying considerably across segments and countries. For example, the Commission expects the EU's app sector to employ 4.8 million people by 2018 and contribute €63 billion to the economy, with a positive impact on youth unemployment.
“The real issue is that there are going to be skill gaps. There are people out of work in Europe and we ought to be doing everything we can to address both of those problems; filling the gaps and getting people out of unemployment and into work,” Higgins told EurActiv in an interview.
Afke Schaart, senior director for EU Institutional Affairs at Microsoft, said that the growing integration of ICT across various sectors, the lack of skilled professionals is of major concern to European competitiveness, not only in the ICT sector itself, but for the economy as a whole.
"We need more highly specialised computer engineers. The ICT sector currently lacks people with the right skills to accomplish a number of functions, from developing software, applications and security systems, to providing lower-end support services such as systems and network administration and user support," Schaart told EurActiv.
No image problem
Higgins said that employers face a big challenge in communicating what sort of exciting job opportunities the industry is providing, especially since fewer people study computer science.
While the industry still has an image problem of only employing the stereotypical tech geek, Higgins added that many young people are unaware that a computer programme degree can lead to jobs making music videos, computer games or developing medical technology.
However, many ICT-related educations are not providing the ICT sector workers that suit the industry needs, making them unemployable in the worst case. The solution could be better cooperation between employers and the academic sector when designing courses. A common certification for standards across countries and the industry would also result in more people getting employed, Higgins said.
Supporting eco systems
At the same time as Europe is struggling to provide the right educations and ICT courses, many of those who fit the existing job market or can create their own start-ups, leave for the single US market which is still widely seen as more attractive.
Currently, there are ICT hubs in London and Berlin which can compete with the US, but in general, a better support ecosystem has to be promoted across the EU, experts claim.
“We need that whole support infrastructure, mentors, access to finance. It should be easier to set up a business, and there should be access to a network with people who are doing the same thing as you. There has to be a stronger network,” Higgins said.
“Things may have to happen at a local level, but there may be things that could be done at a European level and we should also encourage things there through legislation or best practice,” he added.
The networks also need to be expanded to especially include women in ICT, a group which is seen by the Commissioner for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes as crucial to solving the skills-gap problem.
Women are under-represented in ICT jobs across Europe, according to statistics from 2013 published by the Commission. Women make up less than 30% of the ICT workforce, and only 19% of ICT managers. Less than 10% of app developers are female and only 20% of computing graduates each year are women.
According to Microsoft's Schaart, the technology sector’s gender gap is a serious loss for the European economy and for millions of customers who could benefit from ideas contributed by talented women.