If the EU does not solve the e-skills gap, fewer engineers on the market will likely keep salaries high and slow down the digital development in Europe and prevent small and medium size companies to compete in the global economy, said the head of cabinet for EU Information Society Commissioner Neelie Kroes yesterday (4 May).
"If ICT practitioners are not available or are available but at too high a cost due to market factors, this will make more difficult the uptake of the ICT sector," Anthony Whelan, head of Kroes' cabinet, told an audience of experts at a conference organised yesterday by DigitalEurope, one of the biggest industry lobbies.
According to industry analysts, Europe is set to have a shortage of 300.000 experts in the information and communication technologies (ICT) sector by 2015, as it is expected that 90% of all jobs, across sectors, will require the use of digital expertise.
The solution is to increase the number of engineers and ICT experts in Europe to supply the industry's demand of skilled workers while lowering high salaries and increasing productivity.
"We need skills. We need skilled people,"stressed Erkki Ormala, president of DigitalEurope. "In order to be able to develop all of the opportunities all ICT will deliver, we need ICT experts in the ICT sector. But, even more we need ICT experts in other sectors."
Although the number of ICT professionals has more than doubled in Europe compared to 1995, the EU still does not have enough engineers to develop new technologies and use them across all economic sectors, the Commission estimates.
The EU executive calculates that there are almost four million ICT professionals in Europe, who increasingly work in fields like the automotive, banking, finance, graphic arts and media sectors (54.5%) rather than in the traditional ICT industry (which makes up 45.5% of the ICT workforce).
The European economy lags behind many international competitors in the development and usage of ICT, although many experts see the digital conversion as an effective means of increasing productivity, competitiveness and growth.
Average Internet speeds in the EU are 100 times lower than in South Korea or Japan, while the European Commission's budget for research into ICT is smaller than Google's, Commissioner Kroes reiterated yesterday, speaking at the European business leaders' convention in Brussels.
Against this background, the EU executive is planning to refresh its medium-term objectives to boost ICT. A new document detailing the EU's so-called 'Digital Agenda' is expected to be published on 18 May after a number of delays.
Conscious of the problem, European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, recently sent a letter to Commissioner Kroes urging her to take the necessary steps "to avoid a digital divide and give the possibility to all citizens to acquire e-skills."
"While these numbers are a good basis for building a competitive knowledge economy, they are not enough. With the e-skills required by industry varying constantly, employers complain now about e-skills shortages as well as an insufficient level of professionalism and expertise," underlined a Commission note published in March during European e-skills week.
Moreover, e-skills are poorly spread across the adult and elderly population, with a clear technology gap due to demographic imbalances. Brussels is investing to reduce this gap, but not everybody considers this issue a priority.
"The technological gap is not going to burn us for a long time in the future. Basic skills we are developing now will gradually solve the problem," said Jonathan Liebenau of the London School of Economics.
Towards a digital single market
Ahead of the EU Digital Agenda's publication, DigitalEurope Ormala spelled out the industry's requests. "We need to create a digital single market for Europe. We need infrastructure. We need skills to face the shortage of ICT experts," he said.
"We need to build trust into the networks. We need to guarantee free access to the global markets for the EU ICT industry," he added, outlining some of the ten issues raised in a document which the industry lobby presented yesterday.