Schools of tomorrow – building and transforming skills for a digital world

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

Children need to be equipped with the right skills that will empower them to thrive and face the changes made by digitisation. [Pixabay]

Europe’s bid to lead the digital and advanced technology trend will be lost if the EU and national governments don’t take steps to make skills development in digitisation their priority. Digital skills need to be conveyed at all levels and in all forms of education to ensure Europe’s global position, writes Martina Dlabajová.

Martina Dlabajová, a former businesswoman, is now a Czech MEP (ALDE). She is one of the vice-chairs of the Committee on Budgetary Control and an active member of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs which mainly focuses on youth employment. In the Czech Republic, she has launched a motivational project called PročByNe? that offers young people the opportunity to fulfil their professional dreams through exclusive traineeships.

It’s not a wave, it’s a tsunami. The digital transformation is fundamentally disrupting and changing everything in different industries, businesses and most jobs at a rapid pace. Of course, there have been periods of intensive change in history before, however, unlike other periods of the agricultural or industrial revolutions, for example, the digital revolution has no boundaries or borders.

Businesses and economies have been struggling for years to seize the full opportunities that digital technologies can offer. And yet, the next wave of transformational technologies has arrived: accelerating progress in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). In less than five years, artificial intelligence has gone from the stuff of science fiction to the strategic plans of the world’s biggest companies.

Advanced technology has begun entering areas where there was little or no need for it before. The digital and AI revolution is here and it will have profound consequences on the economy and on our everyday life. There is no turning back from it, even if we tried.

Therefore, we should prepare in advance so as to be able to address the rapid development of technology, make the most of the opportunities given and avoid potential risks. Businesses and government leaders must focus on technology adoption, regulatory reform and process change to embrace and cope with digitisation. However, the main question is: where should we begin?

I believe that although we can invest huge resources in digital infrastructure, we will never master the digital transformation without investing in people who will harness the digital skills and will pave Europe’s competitiveness.

Nowadays, digital products and machines are increasingly substituting or outperforming human performance in a range of work activities, not just routine physical ones but even those sensing emotions. They bring about a significant transformation of work, including shifts in the nature of work,  as well as in the occupation,  the skills and the wages earned.

These changes in the labour market logically worry people. Although more new jobs are being created than those replaced by automatisation and robots, and although economic well-being is steadily increasing, there is a fear of uncertainty in society. Digitization is, of course, a challenge but we must accept it as an opportunity and be able to make the most out of it while focusing on the at-risk groups in the labour market.

That is why skills development should become our priority, no one should be left behind. More than a third of the skills that are deemed important today will no longer be so a few years from now, strong analytical capabilities, digital skills, critical thinking, creativity and social skills are taking precedence.

The data is clear, 169 million Europeans aged 16 to 74, i.e. 44%, do not have basic digital skills, although nine out of 10 jobs will require digital skills in the future. At the same time, 77% of companies already consider missing digital skills as the key hurdle to their digital transformation. However, this is not the time to worry, on the contrary, we must grab digitisation as an opportunity. An opportunity to learn and acquire new skills.

Nevertheless, new skills and challenges require new ways of thinking particularly in the way we look at education. The labour market is not what it was 50 or even 20 years ago and the new education framework must reflect this. Education needs to be connected to practice and respond to the demands of the labour market and society.

Digitisation is transforming all industries. That is why digital skills should be conveyed at all levels and in all forms of education. Vocational education and work-based training are particularly effective in this regard because there is a more direct link between education and employment.

But this is not the finish line. The pace of change is so fast that learning must be lifelong. The right attitude to succeed in a digital economy is to be able to quickly adapt to new changes.

I believe the main secret to getting things moving is simply to listen; listen to businesses, education providers and also mainly to students. Among European youth, there is an eagerness to shape the future and we as policymakers should make their voices heard because they are the ones most affected by the decisions we make today.

The European Youth Event (EYE 2018) on 1-2 June is one of such great examples of how to get them involved in the policymaking debate. Getting students excited about the digital future and motivating them will be integral to fixing the digital skills shortage, and supporting EU competitiveness. The EYE should become a central hub for such an exchange.

I am convinced the only way to address any challenge, including the digital one, is through collaboration. We need to encourage a dialogue between education institutions and their students, employers and policymakers; an inseparable triangle necessary for developing skills for tomorrow’s jobs.

Because how can we anticipate future skills if we don’t listen to businesses and all relevant stakeholders affected? Every policy must be based on evidence from practice and its real needs with decision-makers needing data and dialogue to design policy and not the other way around.

And that is the main challenge of today!

It is finally time to realise that Europe’s prosperity depends on its greatest wealth – not its mineral resources or modern technologies, but us, the Europeans who live and work here.

In a rapidly changing global world, it is mainly skills that will become the engine of our competitiveness. There is a change in the way we are working and education can no longer lag behind. Let’s not rest on our laurels. I believe the EYE will be a great stepping stone to get things moving.

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