Europe's ICT sector is falling behind its Asian and American competitors due to the lack of skills and lack of women active in the sector. Europe needs a digital ecosystem as the evidence of the sector's impact on growth is endless, says Neelie Kroes, European Commission vice-president.
Neelie Kroes is the European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda. She answered questions by EurActiv's Jeremy Fleming and Henriette Jacobsen ahead of the e-skills conference in Brussels to launch the Grand Coalition for Digital Skills and Jobs 4-5 March.
Why is Europe lagging on ICT skills compared to Asia, US?
It is not a simple matter of lagging, but a mix of missing skills; skills in the wrong place or at the wrong price. We need to build up our digital ecosystem to avoid a situation where tech companies move from frustration into an exit from our continent.
Is ICT a sexy sector? If not how can you make it one?
Hugely sexy. It changes lives. It's about design, about shopping, about entertainment, about making life better. It's not just about programming! The people who work in ICT are paid well and have a lot of freedom - if I was born 50 years later I would have loved to build a career in this sector.
What can women bring to the ICT sector, if they can be encouraged to get involved?
One: numbers! We need more people, plain and simple, and the pool of women not in ICT is very big.
Two: role models. Extra women will attract extra women. Most people don't want to be alone or in a small minority in a workplace, so women need to see its possible and that it will get better and their choice is a part of the positive change.
Why is now a good time to launch this grand coalition?
Time is not our friend. We need to take action right now, today, tomorrow, throughout the next two years before the skills and vacancies issue gets out of control. It takes time to put people in training, to alert people to the new choices they have, to wake up politicians. So I want the digital sector to show that it is job-creating, that it has a positive impact and to show to entrepreneurs and companies that we want them to stay in Europe.
How can so many strands be effectively co-ordinated, who will have ultimate 'ownership' of the process?
I think it's about partnership not ownership. My goal isn't to get my name in headlines. My goal is getting our young people in jobs and keeping our companies in a healthy state. I will use whatever means to get us there. But that is a responsibility for the sector too. The truth is they are the new backbone of the European economy and that brings some moral responsibility alongside the obvious self-interest they have in joining such an effort.
Are you hoping that some of the Youth unemployment scheme funding earmarked in last week's agreed MFF can be channeled towards the grand coalition?
It's too early to speculate on that, but I don’t think money is the most crucial factor here. You need some to grease the wheels, but we aren't trying to throw money at the problem, we're not looking for welfare. We're saying that the digital sector is about collaboration and high skills and we don't get the necessary ecosystem by each of us sitting in a corner complaining that the world isn't perfect or we can't find the right people to fill the job vacancies.
What evidence is there that ICT is a lever for wider economic growth?
It's almost endless. Investment in ICT skills and equipment and networks drives about half of our productivity growth in Europe. Without productivity growth you have no economic growth – unless you have a lot of babies or a lot more immigrants. So obviously ICT is one of the quickest and most politically effective options we have to deliver growth.
It's sad that the European Council didn't see that in the budget discussions, but that makes efforts like this Coalition all the more important.
Who are the main targets of the scheme, are you keen to focus on specific geographic regions?
We are taking all pledges from any company, they are the priority, but also any public organisation that wants to be involved. It's too hard to focus on a specific part of the digital world or a specific country – that is the sort of thing that the companies need to decide themselves. But I am pleased to see so much interest so far in Spanish initiatives. That is a great sign of hope for that country and its terrible unemployment situation.
Is there a danger that up-coming regulations (cyber security/data protection) may act as a dampener on growth?
I don’t think so. Of course regulations impose a burden, but there is already a much bigger burden of undetected attacks and the risk of major security breaches that cost companies a lot more in the long run. The UK government says one of its biggest risks and the moment is a lack of skilled cybersecurity experts – that tells me that we are right on both counts: better prepared on security, better prepared on skills. That's my motto.