Microsoft warns of growing ICT skills gap

This article is part of our special report ICT: Fuelling the economy.

Millions of Europeans face being locked out of the jobs market in five years time due to their lack of ICT knowledge, according to a new report which claims 90% of jobs will require computer skills.

The vast majority of vacancies across almost all sectors will demand computer literacy as a minimum requirement by 2015, sparking fears that those who lose their jobs during the current recession will become permanently unemployable. 

The study of 13 European countries published yesterday (1 December), sponsored by Microsoft and carried out by research firm IDC, found that 58% of employers believe the education sector is not doing enough to prepare young for the modern workplace. 

Training for advanced ICT skills will grow significantly over the next three to five years, according to the report, which highlights the importance of certification for ICT professionals. 

In addition, it says the majority of the workforce will need their skills updated if they are to use technology to enhance productivity. 

'On-the-job' training may not be enough

Marianne Kolding, vice-president of European Services Research at IDC, said a higher proportion of jobs in Central and Eastern Europe currently require no ICT skills at all. However, she said these countries will catch up with Western Europe over the next five years. 

This, said Kolding, illustrates the need for investment in training the workforce but she expressed scepticism about the true value of 'on-site' and 'on-the-job' training, suggesting professional educators are best-placed to teach new skills. 

She added that while the younger generation are adept at working with user-friendly gadgets, they often do not have a fundamental understanding of how these technologies work. 

There is also significant concern that the competition posed by emerging Asian economies will put serious pressure on the higher-end of Europe's ICT sector due to the volume of engineering graduates being churned out by India and China. 

"ICT undergraduates need to enter the workforce with much stronger business understanding and soft skills, as well as knowledge of leading-edge technology such as cloud computing and Web 2.0," Kolding said. 

The research is based on interviews with business leaders in several sectors, and a web-based survey of almost 1,400 employers across Europe. The participants were drawn primarily from organisations with fewer than 500 employees. 

Eva Uddén Sonnegård, state secretary at the Swedish Ministry of Employment, said the greatest threat posed by the economic downturn is that those who lose their jobs will be permanently lost to the labour force. She said protecting employability is more important than saving particular industries and called for greater efforts to promote training.

"We must now take measures to counteract the negative effects of the economic crisis on employment by making our labour markets structurally stronger, increase access to employment and promote skilling and re-skilling of the labour force," he said. 

Jan Muehlfeit, chairman of Microsoft Europe, said ICT skills are vital to the next generation of workers and to build Europe's innovation society. 

"We know that technology trends will drive the need for better ICT skills amongst the workforce. Governments must continue to invest in education and training to ensure workers are equipped for meaningful employment," he said. 

Speaking at a working dinner hosted by Microsoft in Brussels on 30 November, French Socialist MEP Pervenche Berès, who chairs the European Parliament's committee on employment and social affairs, said the crisis had wiped out the jobs created during the technology boom in the year 2000. 

She said employment should be the EU's top priority, but urged a holistic approach to creating new sustainable employment. Looking at practical issues like transport and housing will be critical to building new industries and making retraining feasible, said Berès. 

Bruno Lanvin, executive director of E-Lab at INSEAD, said Europe faces major handicaps in becoming an innovative society, including its aversion to risk and its attitude to failure. He also expressed concern that a e-skills gender gap is opening up, with fewer young women interested in ICT careers. 

Frans De Bruïne, special advisor to the Dutch government, said the great danger in 2010 is that many skilled workers will lose their jobs and then lose their value as their skills go out of date. He also announced that the Dutch government will set up a taskforce on e-skills. 

Jonathan Liebenau, from the London School of Economics, said South Korea is a prime example of how to promote the eskills agenda. The praised the attitude of Korean managers to harnessing the e-skills of their workforce, and said workers in Korea understand that increasing their skills base enhances their job opportunities. 

Czech centre-right MEP Milan Cabrnoch said Europe was inclined to deal with employment issues "the old way". He said the EU is trying to protect workplaces and workers when they should be supporting retraining. Cabrnoch said health would be a key sector for expanding ICT skills. 

"We often have high-level medically educated personnel who are not well-trained in information technology," he said. 

Maria João Rodrigues, a key figure in crafting the Lisbon Agenda in 2000, said green growth had become a popular buzzword in Europe but it would be a mistake to neglect ICT. "Sometimes we can be the victims of certain fashionable ideas as the risk of marginalising ICT and innovation skills. Not having these skills brings the risk of permanent unemployment," she said. 

Bridget Cosgrave of ICT group Digital Europe said the world is populated by "digital natives, digital immigrants and digital orphans," marking huge differences between the digital literacy of these groups. She said school curricula are still based on an agrarian society instead of equipping young people with technological know-how. 

Cosgrave also said having broadband accessibility for all of Europe's citizens is a necessary tool for engaging the populace. 

Hans van der Loo, head of European Union liaison at Shell International, stressed the need to increase the number of maths, engineering and science graduates. He said eco-innovation simply will not happen if more mathematically-trained workers are not produced by Europe's universities. 

Ben Butters  of Eurochambres said SMEs are constantly complaining about not having access to the right kind of skilled workers. The problem, he said, is that young people no longer gravitate towards the traditional trades. Butters also acknowledged that smaller firms remain reluctant to invest in training, for fear of losing staff to competitors. 

Marius Wanders of social NGO Caritas Europa said the e-learning agenda should be changed to "e-inclusion", noting that it is difficult to retrain rural farmers from ploughing to e-skills. 

Finding employees with the right skills has become a major issue for employers in Europe. Business leaders have pointed to the growing "skills mismatch", with four million vacancies going unfilled last year because the 18 million unemployed Europeans did not have the qualifications required to take up the available positions (EURACTIV 03/03/09). 

Language and ICT skills are seen as areas where the European workforce needs to improve. At the European Business Summit in Brussels in March 2009, corporate lobbyists called for a 'European Skills Pact' which would see unemployed workers retrained to equip them for the workplace of the future (EURACTIV 27/03/09). 

A report from business school INSEAD said Europeans' ability to compete in the global knowledge economy was hampered by a lack of skills and mobility. The INSEAD report was sponsored by Shell and Microsoft, two firms that have been pushing for greater support for retraining. 

  • 2-5 March 2010: European e-skills week. 
  • Spring 2010: Publication of European Innovation Act and EU 2020 .

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