Creating digital jobs easier than putting humans on the moon

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

If we can put men on the moon, and get them back, surely Europe is capable of creating more digital jobs, especially since its future might just well depend on it, argues John Higgins.

John Higgins is director-general of DigitalEurope, a federation representing large and small technology companies. He is a board member of Britain's e-skills council and of the council of the University of Warwick. In 2005 was awarded Commander of the British Empire (CBE).

“I’ve always been interested in space. Mysteries of the universe, space travel, black holes and all that. So it was a real pleasure to hear an 83-year-old Buzz Aldrin speak at a dinner in Brussels last week, and to discover that my dinner table neighbour worked for NASA. It got me comparing the challenges of getting men to the moon, and crucially, back again, with the other challenge that occupied the beginning of that week; creating more digital jobs in Europe.

I imagined someone in NASA setting out a radical plan to achieve this incredible feat and then inviting people to build on it. Here, I’m standing on the shoulders of the many giants who have got us this far and setting out my thoughts on how to meet today’s digital jobs challenge.

The Grand Coalition for digital job creation was launched in Brussels on 4 March. It brings together four parts of the European Commission with a range of stakeholders, including my own association, DigitalEurope. Inspired by EU Commissioner for Digital Affairs Neelie Kroes, the coalition’s purpose is win-win; get unemployed talented Europeans into work and fill the gaps in their workforces that many employers say holds back their growth.

The launch was a big success and a culmination of some impressive cheer-leading and enthusiasm-building by Kroes.

The challenge now is to execute. And first we need a plan. Here’s how I see it.

Start with some definitions. We need to agree what digital jobs are. They aren’t just information communications technology (ICT) jobs but go far beyond that. How about “jobs that create or exploit digital technologies to deliver social or economic benefit in Europe”. Any good definition will stretch from programmers to web entrepreneurs.

Next, segment these jobs and guesstimate how many there will be and in which countries or regions. Only pay attention to big segments. I would guess a long list would include; (big) data analysts; cyber-security specialists; hybrids with both business sector (including public sector) knowledge, and digital technology expertise; app developers; cloud specialists; green experts; and business analysts.

Thirdly, identify the training provision needed for each big segment and spot gaps. Incentivise industry to create vendor neutral “unbranded” training schemes and create maps for each segment that show how the neutral and vendor specific schemes fill the needs.

Fourthly, develop schemes to encourage labour movement between high demand and high supply countries and regions.

Then build tomorrow’s workforce. Equip careers advisers and primary school teachers. Work closely with educators to ensure they find a way of both meeting students’ broader educational needs and giving them the best possible base for a future digital job.

It is not either or – it has to be both. Industry needs to be clear – only a very small percentage of future digital jobs require a computer science degree. (Check out the employment rate differences in the UK between an ITMB and a “traditional” computer science degree.)

As NASA knows, a plan is a start but you need to execute it. So here are a couple of thoughts. There is a lot of expertise at a national level. Although there are some things that can only be done at a European level, much of the implementation must be done on the ground, in the countries and regions of Europe.

So bring some of the national e-skills leaders together to drive this forward. I haven’t seen much evidence of this so far. There is a lot of experience and expertise across the Commission, at least four of the directorate-generals.

Bring them together into one “tiger team” or “hit squad” for the rest of this Commission’s life and have them, and the other stakeholders work to one plan with one leader.

Leadership and a focus on execution are essential. Don’t let bureaucracy and procedures get in the way. If we can put men on the moon, and get them back we can surely do this. Europe’s future might just well depend on it.”

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