In a joint effort, industry and the EU seek to make as many EU residents as possible computer-literate. They profit professionally and in their private lives, and the potential benefits for the economy are huge. 

As Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sets out to penetrate almost every part of human economic activity, skills in this area become more and more important, and those who do not have sufficient skills suffer from a major disadvantage on the labour market. Since definition and evaluation criteria for skills remain often quite diffuse, companies do not manage to put the person with the right skills in the right workplace. On the other hand, skills are often wasted because workers have been placed where they can't make sufficient use of the skills they have. 

A June 2006  Eurostat report on Europeans' e-literacy revealed that 37% of people aged between 16 and 74 in the EU-25 had no basic computer skills. According to the OECD, 20% of total employment could be replaced due to a growing IT skills shortage in Europe. 

E-skills refers to practitioner skills as well as to user skills. CEDEFOP, the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training, differs three target groups: 

  • the ICT practitioner, who deals with and need the skills for for researching, developing, designing and managing, the producing, consulting, marketing and selling, the integrating, in-stalling and administrating, the maintaining, supporting and service of ICT systems
  • the ICT user, who needs the skills required for effective application of ICT systems and devices as tools in support of the own work 
  • e-Business, where skills are needed to exploit opportunities provided by ICT to ensure more efficient and effective performance of different types of organisations.

EU economies as a whole could become more effective, productive and competitive if better skills in all the right places could be assured. Especially with respect to ICT, where skill levels are extremely different, this is important. At the level of basic skills, 45% of all EU workers and 73.5% of white collar workers use a computer for their job. Still, only 16% of EU workers have received IT training paid by their employers. Most of them had to learn on their own how to use a computer. These numbers have almost not changed in the ten years since the publication of the Commission's 1996 Green paper "Living and working in the Information Society". Already then, a consultation on the paper stressed the need of eSkills to avoid that the Information Society excludes those already disadvantaged in society. 

In 1999, Career Space - a Commission-funded industry initiative - was launched to address gaps and mismatches in ICT skills, an issue that was also treated two years later by the Lulea Informal Telecom Council. 

In 2001, the Commission established a Task Force on Skills and Mobility, which in its final report recommended that "Member States should ensure that all citizens acquire basic skills, including literacy and numeracy, information technology (particularly ICT skills through tools such as the European Computer Driving Licence), and social competencies, such as teamwork, problem solving and learning to learn. Member States should ensure that these skills are acquired by age 16, and achieve this objective by 2006". In addition, the Task Force recommended that "Member States should encourage public/private partnerships, both for enterprises and the public sector, to better monitor the demand for ICT and e-business skills and to help define and prioritise the skills to be matched notably against industry requirements, to generate detailed skills profiles (e.g. along the principles used by the Career Space, and related curricula and training facilities, and to Consortium in the ICT-sector) promote e-learning."

number of conferences since addressed various issues connected to e-Skills. In 2005, the Barroso Commission made education and skills one of ten top priorities of its Growth and Jobs Strategy.

Digital divide: A number of factors make it more or less likely whether a person has a sufficient level of e-Skills. People from countries with high internet penetration - like Germany, Belgium or the Nordic countries - have an advantage over people where the penetration is low, like Poland or Greece. Men have an advantage over women, highly-educated people and white-collar workers over people with lower education levels and blue-collar workers. People from migrant communities are disadvantaged as compared to those whose parents have always lived in the same country, and the poor are disadvantaged as compared to the wealthy. If no measures are taken, the lack of e-Skills will therefore reinforce already existing divides in society and prevent people from working their way up. 

Certification: Research shows that workers with certified IT skills would be offered better payment when hired, both in IT and non-IT roles. A workshop in Brussels dealt with the question of certifying computer skills. The Copenhagen process aims "to strengthen policies, systems and practices that support information, guidance and counselling, at all levels of education, training and employment, particularly on issues concerning access and transferability and recognition of competences and qualifications". At an end user level, the European Computer Driving Licence provides such a certification. Microsoft's IT Academies provide alumni with different levels of certification exams. 

At the launch event for the e-Skill Leadership Board, Commission Vice President Günter Verheugen  said: "There is now a broad agreement on the main challenges and the key components of a long-term e-skills agenda. They are basically the following:

  • Longer term cooperation between public authorities, industry, academia, trade unions and associations through scalable and sustainable multi-stakeholder partnerships;
  • human resources investment to ensure sufficient public and private sector investments in e-skills education; 
  • attractiveness and the promotion of science, maths and ICT as well as role models, job profiles and career perspectives; 
  • employability and e-inclusion and the development of digital literacy and e-competence actions tailored to the needs of groups at risk of exclusion, and;
  • lifelong acquisition of e-skills and the promotion of better and more user-centric e-learning approaches."  

On the launch of the European Alliance on Skills for Employability, Employment Commissioner Vladimír Špidla  said: "The most important phase of the European Union’s growth and jobs strategy is underway, and the spotlight is firmly on delivering results. Partnerships between the Member States and the private sector can also make a major contribution to Europe’s competitiveness as a region and for its citizens. I welcome the creation of the European Alliance on Skills for Employability. The alliance is a leading example of how innovative business-to-business collaborations, working with different stakeholders, can provide opportunities to the European unemployed. Access to skills training, content provision and certification can help older workers, people with disabilities and the young to face the challenges of unemployment and the changing workplace, and so contribute to Europe’s prosperity." 

Education and Culture Commissioner Ján Figel said: "A learning society for all is the most valid guarantee against exclusion. Knowledge, skills and competences are the main capital of European citizens and e-skills are a key competence in the context of lifelong learning. But only 10% of the European population participate in lifelong learning. ICT has the potential to enable innovation and lifelong learning for all. We must ensure that this becomes a reality."

Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding said: "Shortfalls of qualified ICT practitioners slow down new ICT applications in the economy and draw away billions of euros of investment funds to dynamic emerging economies, where hundreds of thousands of new engineers are qualifying each year. Digital illiteracy, still standing at nearly 40%, is also a persistent feature of Europe's digital divide. We can no longer afford to waste the talents of millions of Europeans by leaving them out of the information society. Member States and industry must commit to a substantial e-skills strategy."

Jan MuehlfeitMicrosoft’s Chairman Europe, said, commenting on the Commission's Communication 'e-skills for the 21st century': "We fully support this Communication, and will continue doing our part to make the EU e-skills agenda a reality. The skills gap threatens Europe’s competitiveness and social balance. We need less talk and more action. The European Commission and industry are on board, and we look to EU Member States to play a key role in implementing the e-skills action plan. Microsoft is committed to investing for a more employable, more educated and more competitive Europe."

Hugo Lueders, Director Public Policy Europe with CompTIA, the Computing Technology Industry Association, and also engaged with the Skills for Employability Alliance, said in an interview with EURACTIV: With more than 20 million people unemployed in Europe, a rapidly ageing population and rising competitiveness pressures, strengthening investment in 'skills for employability' is a key plank of the EU-wide Strategy for Jobs and Growth."

Social Platform  President Anne-Sophie Parent said with respect to jobs commitments by big companies that besides the sheer figures the quality of the jobs must be taken into account. She stressed the need to bring disadvantaged groups into jobs and the potential of ICT of achieving this. She said not only ICT literacy was important to profit of these opportunities, but also access to the internet. For that reason, she argued, the internet should be declared a service of general interest, which member states should bring to all citizens. 

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