Europe strives to hold back 'digital brain drain'

  

SPECIAL REPORT / With more than half of Spain's and Greece’s young people jobless, those with in-demand digital skills are increasingly seeking work in stabler Austria, Germany and the Netherlands.

Thousands of young Spanish and Greek professionals are leaving their homeland in search of employment. The result is a mass exodus of young, educated Spaniards – a brain drain, the likes of which has not been seen since the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939.

Most worrying from a European perspective, they are not simply leaving for northern Europe. Although firm figures are difficult to come by, Mexico's immigration office, the Instituto Nacional de Migracion, reports the number of Spaniards granted work permits in the last quarter of 2012 alone at 7,630.

These job migration trends have not gone unnoticed in the European Union, which is struggling with worst unemployment rates in decades following the 2008 financial and economic meltdown.

In March, the European Commission is set to launch a "Grand Coalition for Digital Jobs", outlining measures designed to increase job mobility, but also to rationalise training and certification in the sector to match skills to vacancies.

The root causes of the brain drain – a lack of available labour in southern Europe, and a lack of skilled youth in northern countries – will require deeper remedies, however.

New standards for competence in ICT

According to Fiona Fanning, the secretary general of the Council of European Professional Informatics Societies CEPIS, the increasing demand for skilled workers in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector in stabler economies is hampered not only by the lack of new entrants into the profession, but also by mismatches in competences that workers have today.

The lack of a common means to consistently understand and communicate ICT professional competencies and attractive career paths is considered one of the key reasons for this.

Seeking to resolve this challenge, the e-Competence Framework (e-CF) – a pan-European reference framework of ICT competences – will be recognised as a priority by the Grand Coalition.

It provides a standard to describe and communicate ICT worker and manager competences. These skill sets are country-independent and openly shared for use across all ICT-related professions.

The e-CF is intended to be applied in educational and standardisation institutes, in human resources, by ICT professionals who seek to deepen their careers and expertise and for specialists who provide ICT training, certifications, jobs and services.

The framework has been developed by a large number of European ICT and HR experts in the context of the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN). It is hoped that its immediate deployment will foster mobility among ICT Professionals in Europe.

Grand Coalition will see series of certification launches

This initiative will be backed up by others relating to certification. For example, CEPIS is pledging to undertake a pan-European e-Competence Benchmark, an online interactive tool designed to enable current and future ICT professionals to identify the competences they need or lack for various ICT roles, thus enabling them to adapt to labour market demand.

Individuals can check their competences against a range of profiles and better equip themselves for future roles using the benchmark.

The e-CF Framework was also created by CEN and will be freely available to all after the launch at the March Grand Coalition launch.

Meanwhile the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL), the key European certifying authority of computer skills, plans to announce a new approach in support of the Coalition.   The ‘new ECDL’, with a wider range of modules and greater flexibility, reflects the growing need for certification options that support employability by aligning individuals’ skills with employers’ needs.

“Tailored skilling and upskilling of the workforce through a recognised certification standard that has flexibility will help create more and better jobs, as well as facilitate labour mobility,” according to Damien O'Sullivan, ECDL’s chief executive. ‘New ECDL’ will be announced at the grand coalition’s inaugural event on 4 March, with the European network of certification providers, with over 24,000 test centres, undertaking to implement this in the months that follow.

Standards for ICT training desperately needed

All of this cannot come too soon, according to Kathryn Parsons, the co-founder of the De-Coded start-up, which runs one-day courses designed to help people learn how to programme computers.

De-Coded has seen unprecedented demand for its courses from professional and untrained workers of all ages and backgrounds. There is clearly unmet demand for training, according to Parsons.

“Coding is not being taught in schools, and there are no agreed methodologies for measuring coding ability,” she told a ‘Big Tent’ brainstorming session for the ICT sector organised by Google in Brussels yesterday (20 February).

Yvonne van Hest, the manager of international labour market development on behalf of the thriving ICT cluster around Eindhoven in The Netherlands, acknowledged that the root problem of brain drain lies in the low standard of technical skills available in the Netherlands itself.

“We have only 18% of young people taking up technical subjects, whereas we need 40%,” she said, adding: “We need to start reflecting the German system, where there is much more cultural value for ICT and technical engineers.”

Migration can store up benefits in the long term

Van Hest said that Brainport is keen to solve the problem by collaborating more closely with regions in countries such as Spain which is providing a steady flow of skilled workers to The Netherlands.

A joint conference between technology sector interests from The Netherlands and Spain, along with EU executive representatives, will address the issue in April, according to Van Hest.

“We need to create more of a virtuous circle so that [the] skilled unemployed leaving Spain in higher numbers to come to the Netherlands are balanced with policies that mean the whole of Europe can benefit,” she explained.

Nevertheless the narrative of ‘brain drain’ can also mask benefits arising from the phenomenon. Spanish technicians working in the Netherlands benefit the Dutch economy – and the workers themselves – but also Spain.

In the short run, migration reduces pressure on budgets as the Spanish unemployed move to Germany rather than claiming benefits at home.

And in the longer term, a pool of highly skilled workers can be re-deployed back in Spain once the crisis is over.

Timeline: 
  • 4-5 March: Conference in Brussels to launch the Grand Coalition for Digital Skills and Jobs
External links: 

European Commission

Industry Federations

European professional standards

  • European Council of European Professional Informatics Societies (CEPIS): pages on competence
  • European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL): Web site
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