Industry calls for scaling up investment in digital skills amid shortage

ICT fields are currently facing a critical shortage of skilled workers and the need for digital education is also widespread in other areas, where digital competence is becoming essential for participation in work and everyday life. [Shutterstock / iiinuthiii]

Investing in digital skills will be crucial if Europe wants to reshape its economic position and secure its place in the future global value chain, industry and innovation figures have said, amid an ongoing skills shortage in the sector.

ICT fields are currently facing a critical shortage of skilled workers. The need for digital education is widespread in many areas as digital competence becomes essential for participation in work and everyday life.

While the Commission’s Digital Decade targets include ensuring basic digital capabilities amongst 80% of the EU’s population by 2030, a significant skills gap remains.

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At the recent Huawei Talent Summit in Helsinki, Kenneth Fredriksen, executive vice-president for Central East Europe and the Nordic region at Huawei, told EURACTIV that greater attention should encourage young people and women into the sector and that digital investment should be focused on cultivating talent.

“As now everyone is going digital – countries, companies and individuals – I think it becomes even clearer that the shortage of such talents, and access to these talents, is creating a huge gap, and Europe is maybe standing out negatively in this regard”, he said.

Skills shortage 

The Digital Decade plan also aims to secure the employment of 20 million ICT specialists across the EU by 2030, with a convergence between the number of men and women working in the sector. 

However, the 2021 Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), which charts annual progress on the targets across EU countries, revealed in November that only a handful of countries are set to meet the digital skills goal, while in others basic digital skills remain extremely low amongst the general population. 

Similarly, the proportion of the general workforce employed in ICT roles remains low in most countries. Only in Bulgaria, Greece and Romania do women account for more than 25% of workers in the ICT field. 

Data show mixed situations across EU states on digital transition

The European Commission has set a number of objectives for the digital transition of member states as part of the EU’s “2030 Digital Compass”, and the annual progress report, released on 12 November, showed mixed results across the bloc.

Also speaking at the summit, ahead of the February release of a white paper on digital skills, Erik Stone Trautman and Luca Marcolin of EY outlined data gathered by the firm showing that there is a fairly even distribution of digital proficiency levels across the EU, with roughly as many people having above-average skills as below-average.

However, more drastic variation, they noted, can be seen within regions on both a national and continental level, where skill levels differ more starkly.

Skills promotion

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven home to many countries the critical nature of connectivity, digital infrastructure and a digitally educated population, said Fredriksen, heightening the importance of promoting digital engagement and developing ICT talent from a young age. 

Digital education and skills form a significant part of the first three Digital Europe work programmes approved by the Commission in November, totalling almost €2 billion in funding. Of this, €329 million will develop a network of European Digital Innovation Hubs, set to act as sites for technical training and information-sharing.  

Two non-legislative initiatives on digital skills and education are also planned as part of the Commission’s 2022 work programme. Set for the year’s third quarter, the measures will address Europe’s digital divide and respond to the new challenges thrown up by the pandemic, particularly when adapting education systems for a digital future.

€2 billion in Digital Europe funding approved by Commission

The Commission has adopted the first three work programmes for its Digital Europe Programme, totalling almost €2 billion in green and digital transition funding.

Gender gap

The DESI also cast light on gender differences in digital skills. While the gap between men and women is narrow in some general internet competencies, resting within a few percentage points in terms of basic digital capabilities and rates of regular internet usage, it remains significant when it comes to specialist skills. 

Only 19% of ICT specialists and around 33% of graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are females, according to the 2021 Women in Digital Scoreboard, released as part of the DESI data. These figures have remained steady for several years, demonstrating the lack of progress in addressing the issue. 

Citing studies that have shown similar levels of interest in STEM subjects between boys and girls before their teenage years, at which point the latter’s engagement and confidence have often been found to decline, Dora Palfi, CEO and co-founder of ImagiLabs, said that more energy needs to be funnelled into ensuring that girls are not discouraged from participating in these fields and are actively encouraged instead.

Echoing this, Fredriksen of Huawei added that more needs to be done to make the ICT field attractive and available to women and girls long before university level.

“If we look at the future, where the future opportunities are, it’s in the digital sector and technology sector. So it’s about making sure that the digital transformation is not increasing inequalities; it should reduce inequalities.”

LEAK: Digital policies in the Commission's 2022 work programme

A Cyber Resilience Act, a Chips Act, a European Media Freedom Act and initiatives to boost digital skills – the European Commission’s 2022 work programme, seen by EURACTIV, gives an insight into upcoming digital initiatives coming from Brussels.

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/ Alice Taylor]

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