Digital skills and excellent infrastructure are essential to ensure no European is left behind in the digital transition. Still, experts at a panel this week said that a faster pace and better cohesion are needed to achieve the Commission’s targets for 2030.
“Things are not yet there,” said MEP Victor Negrescu, vice-president of the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education (CULT). “We cannot simply wait for things to happen”, he added, during an event organised by GIGAEurope and EURACTIV on digital inclusiveness.
Negrescu called for faster and better synergy between the available tools and funds.
In March, the European Commission presented its Digital Compass, which lays down targets to help citizens and governments benefit from the digitalisation of society by 2030. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic sped up the shift to a more digital world, meaning there’s work to be done in ensuring cohesion across the board.
By the end of the decade, 80% of the European population will have basic digital skills, including at least 20 million ICT specialists. Companies will scale up their digital transformation, with a target of 90% of SMEs reaching basic digital intensity.
“This task needs leaders’ attention and a structured dialogue at top-level,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stressed in her State of the Union Address last month.
But there is still some way to go. An analysis conducted by consulting giant Deloitte indicated in June that the national plans were falling short of meeting 2030 digital targets.
“Today, 66% of the EU population possess digital skills, but 84% use the Internet,” noted Fabrizia Benini, a Commission official who follows the relationship between digital economy, skills, and recovery plans.
“There’s something wrong here,” she warned.
On the panel, Georgi Dimitrov, another Commission official focused on digital education, stressed that “the sooner you start, the better”.
Dimitrov also praised the need to deal with this issue in an “integrated, holistic manner”, including the training for teachers to use digital tools properly, after the pandemic highlighted shortcomings.
All panellists agreed on the importance of digital education to provide the European workforce with skills to face the changes digitalisation is bringing. It’s an even “greater equaliser” than basic education, Dimitrov said.
Having high digitally skilled people in the bloc will also allow us to design what we want to offer our citizens in the future, said Benini, while Negrescu stressed the importance of developing “European innovation in those fields”.
The right target
For Benini, policymakers need to ensure that “the people we train are actually people that will be in the job market”. She called for “member states [to] identify the segments of the population and the initiatives they are doing to target those” so that no category is left behind.
Mario Mariniello, a senior fellow at the economic think tank Bruegel, warned that the attention should not be only on the supply of training opportunities but on the target.
“Low educated workers have one third participation rate to training opportunities compared to highly educated workers,” he noted, inviting the EU to design the “right incentives”.
“Those who have complementary skills will benefit, but those who have skills that can be replaced will be penalised” at first, Mariniello said.
The focus should also be put on small and medium-sized firms, according to lawmaker Negrescu, to avoid the risk of the digital transformation being there only for the “big players”.
A minimum of 20% of the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility is earmarked to “foster the digital transition”.
“What we have seen from the member states coming to us, in particular from COVID and from the wish to learn how others deal with this type of challenges, is the great level of shared problems and the wish for cooperating better at the EU level in the field of digital education,” said Dimitrov.
He also mentioned that the Commission would launch a European digital education hub early next year to promote closer cooperation.
Dimitrov emphasised that digital education entails having a “comprehensive view”, noting that “the challenge is to have education ministers talking to finance ministers together with telecom ministers”.
Experts acknowledged, however, that the digital education system, the skills and competencies of people are only “one side of the coin” and that infrastructure and connectivity are equally essential to make sure that no one is left behind.
The EU’s digital targets also aim at “Gigabit for everyone, 5G everywhere” by 2030.
[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/ Alice Taylor]