Digital Single Market needs real skills and substance to succeed

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

Member states need to teach digital skills from a young age in order to bridge the current skills gap. [Kevin Jarrett/Flickr]

Europe is creating digital jobs, but lacks the skilled workforce to fill them. The Commission should promote the benefits of action at national level without drowning member states in red tape, writes Jamie Greene.

Jamie Greene is a Conservative member of the Scottish parliament and the Scottish Conservative spokesman on connectivity, digital economy and technology.

The Europe we live in today is vastly different from the Europe of 15 years ago. As personal computers were brushed aside by smart phones and everything from banking to food shopping switched online, the continent’s skills remained stuck in an analogue mind-set.

Europe’s growth remains sluggish; so any attempt to return to the pre-2008 levels will require an asserted and strong digital agenda to ensure that any future growth is led by technology, not merely reacting to it.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has been vocal about using a digital strategy to finally end the EU’s economic woes. His flagship Digital Single Market (DSM) policy has clear merit and advantages, with gains estimated to be between €250-€415 billion by 2020, or 4% of EU GDP.

Importantly, the Commission must understand that these benefits cannot be achieved in the absence of the necessary skills to complement the infrastructure and regulatory environment.

Creating roles for software programmers without training software programmers isn’t progress. Across the EU, 28% of the population is reported to be lacking in any formal IT training.

We can draw parallels with the situation we face in Scotland today. Every year we create 11,000 digital vacancies but only manage to fill around half of them. The digital sector’s presence in our economy is set to increase dramatically but a lack of focus in Scottish education has seen graduates in critical subjects such as the sciences, engineering, technology and maths (STEM) diminish.

Empirica projected that 820,000 digital jobs could be added to the EU by 2020 but if we look at the EU’s 2016 Digital Economy and Society Index we see major economies such as France, Spain, Italy and Poland below the overall EU average.

When measured by crucial human capital (the necessary skills to take advantage of digital opportunities) the outcome remains concerning. The pool of digital talent is struggling to keep pace with increasing digitisation.

Based on the European Commission’s 2015 Digital Scoreboard, 40% of the EU population “lacked digital skills”, while 22% had no digital skills. Advanced digital skills hover around 8% across the continent and only 10% of Europeans have any experience of complex coding.

Commission Vice-President and DSM chief Andrus Ansip has acknowledged this is a “cause for concern” but despite this and despite key events such as the Riga Declaration, the digital skills gap isn’t narrowing at the necessary pace. A focus on digital education might be a step forward by individual member states to compliment the Commission’s agenda but this will be a long-term process that will likely not arrive in time for the 2020 deadline.

European institutions are capable of acting only within their remit, which at this point primarily concerns the coordination of infrastructure and the setting of regulatory regimes. Although the European executive could provide a coordinating role, it would be better suited to outlining the individual national benefits as a means of motivating member states to take action of their own accord.

A positive role the Commission could play is addressing industry concerns over the DSM such as IPR and the financial impact of geoblocking on our creative industries. For example, how will content be funded when roughly half of member states do not pay a TV or radio licence fee?

International licensing (i.e. for European football broadcasting) is a more complex task than is being portrayed and is exceedingly expensive, so why is there such little conversation around the practicalities of this?

In the world of tech, cloud and virtual markets, borders are created with software, not checkpoints, but the principles of security, sovereignty, and ownership must never be forgotten.

So far these concerns have been brushed aside by Commissioners Ansip and Günther Oettinger without any real attention to the potential impacts this could have on broadcasters, data merchants and IP owners.

Ensuring the industry has enough flexibility to thrive is also crucial. The European Commission may want to tear down technical barriers, but if it insists on adopting the common European approach of over-regulation, it risks suffocating Europe’s digital industry in red tape.

With 2020 only three years away, a renewed focus on digital is an immediate necessity if any progress is to be made with digitising the continent. The UK government has just announced a massive digital infrastructure investment package in its Autumn Statement with some projections suggesting £13 billion could be added to the Scottish economy alone. National capitals might consider following this example.

Brexit or no Brexit, the virtual markets of the world will continue to exist and consumers’ thirst for products and services will only grow.

The DSM cannot be achieved simply through the offices in the Berlaymont in Brussels, nor through the German Chancellery Office. It will be created through classrooms, universities and training facilities at the national, regional and local levels. If Europe is serious about regaining the digital initiative, it will need to embark on an ambitious education of its digital workforce.

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