Cracking the code

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

Amsterdam public library. [Stijn Bokhove / Flickr]

As EU Code Week puts the spotlight on skills needed for the digital economy, it is important that vulnerable segments of European society are not left further behind, writes Ilona Kish.

Ilona Kish is the Director of Public Libraries 2020, which brings together library organisations and advocates from across the EU. PL2020 is a programme run by The Reading & Writing Foundation, founded in 2004 by HRH Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands.

Whether we are talking jobs, skills or the single market, “digital” is the adjective of choice in the EU policy making lexicon at the moment. And for good reason.

In all aspects of our daily lives, the digital revolution is affecting the way we work, communicate and interact with others. For the most part, this is a hugely positive thing, and opens up professional and personal opportunities that would never have been available to us before. However, the flip side is that as most people and businesses become more and more connected, there is a danger that certain segments of society could be cut off and left behind.

The gaps are already there. Nine out ten jobs will require digital skills by 2020, but for the moment, according to the European Commission, almost half the EU population has insufficient digital skills and around 20% has none at all. At the highly-skilled end of the scale, it is estimated that three-quarters of a million ICT related jobs will still be unfilled in Europe by the turn of the decade. But a range of more fundamental digital competences are going to be become ever more crucial for people to be able to participate fully in modern society.

The question is where can they acquire these skills? Although there are welcome moves across Europe to increase the focus on digital skills like coding in public education, 28% of students in the EU have practically no access to ICT – either at school or at home. And the danger is that once they leave the education system, they have ever decreasing chances of catching up.

That is why non-formal learning institutions such as telecentres and public libraries have such a crucial role to play in acting as a safety net for those who, for whatever reason, have not been able to develop the right skills through the formal education system.

Contrary to many people’s perceptions, Europe’s public libraries have not remained frozen in time, and are reinventing themselves as centres for digital inclusion in society. For almost two million Europeans, the local library is the only place where they have the chance to go online. For some of them, it is about looking for work – 250,000 people found at job using a computer in a public library in 2013. For others, it is about learning skills such as coding and robotics, to increase their chances of future employment, as well as enhance their understanding of the world around them.

More needs to be done to ensure that digitally excluded people are aware and can avail of the opportunities provided by non-formal learning institutions. The reality is that the picture differs from one country to another. While 100% of public libraries in Latvia offer access to the internet, almost 80% of German ones still don’t. Ensuring all of Europe’s libraries can fulfil their potential as hubs for digital learning and e-inclusion not only involves support from public authorities. It also requires an awareness on the part of the institutions themselves of their evolving role in society and a willingness to adapt.

EU Code Week  provides a fantastic platform not only to showcase the great work being done across Europe to equip people for the workplace of tomorrow, but also to highlight the challenges of reaching out to vulnerable groups and discuss appropriate policy responses.

The important role of non-formal learning institutions for hard-to-reach groups should be recognised in EU initiatives that address skills, education and employment. Though many public libraries are already working to improve digital competences, it is important there are policies and strategies in place to empower them to scale up these activities in the future.

Public Libraries 2020 will be hosting an interactive exhibition and series of workshops at the European Parliament in October 18-19 of 2016, showcasing the top innovative digital exhibits from public libraries across the EU as part of EU Code Week. For more information see Generation Code: born at the library

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