Commission co-opts private sector in grand ICT skills venture


This article is part of our special report e-Skills.

SPECIAL REPORT / The European Commission in March is due to launch an initiative designed to close the gap between an unskilled workforce and the EU’s growing demand for information and communications technology (ICT).

Neelie Kroes, Commission vice president for digital affairs, will launch a so-called Grand Coalition for Digital Jobs and Training at a conference in Brussels on 4-5 March, during which she will seek to confirm partnership ‘pledges’ from the private sector.

The EU executive is seeking collaboration on industry-led training, assisting labour mobility, certifying skills, improving school and university curriculums, and creating an entrepreneurs friendly environment for start-ups.

It will also seek to help the sector shrug off a dowdy reputation that is deterring young people generally, and specifically women.

Kroes' call to action in Switzerland

Kroes paved the way for the launch with a call for action at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on 24 January, where she sought support behind the scenes from senior executives in the ICT sector to get concrete pledges and support for the scheme.

A shared roadmap and implementation plan will be presented by the Grand Coalition for Digital Jobs and Training at the conference where a list of concrete high-impact actions will have to be implemented in the short term.

The EU executive has already collected pledges on new jobs, internships, training places, start-up funding and free online university courses from companies such as Nokia, Telefónica, SAP, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard , Alcatel-Lucent and Randstad.

EURACTIV understands that during the conference, SAP will announce an extension of its Academy Cube initiative.

The Cube aims to identify professional opportunities for young Europeans and offer them suitable training programmes to facilitate recruitment in German companies.

The initiative includes several of the largest German IT companies and is working with the German government to dovetail potential education and skills programmes with strategic gaps and identified future needs for innovation.

SAP’s pledge to work with the Commission will open the door for this scheme to be extended to many more member states, and to develop into a pan-European initiative.

Federations joining in the coalition

In addition to private-sector companies, the Council of European Professional Informatics Societies and Digital Europe – the European ICT federation – have also committed to provide strategic support.

Startup Europe, a single platform for tools and programmes supporting people wanting to set up and expand web companies, will also join in an attempt to boost ICT entrepreneurship.

A key hurdle affecting the new initiative will be “launch fatigue”, as the jobs and growth agenda has already seen many high-profile official kick starts that have drifted away from public attention.

The Grand Coalition is itself part of the Commission’s much-vaunted Employment Package and is seeking to capitalise and intensify existing policies, such as the Digital Agenda for Europe, the E-skills Strategy, the Opening Up Education initiative, the Rethinking Education Strategy, the Youth Opportunities Initiative, and the EU Skills Panorama.

How to make a difference

How the EU executive will prevent the Grand Coalition from disappearing within this alphabet soup of policy remains a key question.

Commission staff believe that some of the policies being lined up demonstrate that it means business. One such relates to the ‘training voucher’ schemes already used in Germany and Spain.

Voucher-based training models there have provided jobs for 60-70% of the 20,000 participants included within the schemes and the EU executive wants to replicate and scale up the idea on a Europe-wide level.

It also intends to facilitate mobility for unemployed persons and standardise certification of skills, through a transformed eCompetence Framework available in all 23 official languages of the EU.

Jobs creation will be the key indicator

Officials are also working to incorporate progress indicators within the Coalition’s strategy, better to gauge the success of the various schemes.

“The key success factor will be to reduce the [ICT skills] gap, to convert unemployed to employed people and to see the number of graduates in ICT-related curricula rising, not falling,” an EU official working on the project told EURACTIV.

Much will depend, however, on the degree of buy-in the policy garners during and immediately after its launch, and Kroes’ ability to drive the initiative at a time when the Commission is already juggling a range of crisis-response initiatives relating to Banking Union, and time is ticking on its mandate, which will finish at the end of next year.

"The digital skills gap is growing, like our unemployment queues. We need joint action between governments and companies to bridge that gap,” said European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes.

“The ICT sector is the new backbone of Europe's economy, and together we can prevent a lost generation and an uncompetitive Europe. So I am expecting concrete pledges by companies, everyone I meet will be getting the same request. The Commission will do its bit but we can't do it alone – companies, social partners and education players – including at national and regional level - have to stand with us,” Kroes said.

Europe faces up to 700,000 unfilled ICT jobs and declining competitiveness. The number of digital jobs is growing – by 3% each year during the crisis – but the number of new ICT graduates and other skilled ICT workers is shrinking.

4th & 5th March: Conference in Brussels to launch the Grand Coalition for Digital Skills and Jobs

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