No one can doubt that reducing the digital divide is a key priority for the EU. The sheer volume of initiatives which involve this objective – such as the 'Digital Agenda for Europe', 'an Agenda for New Skills and Jobs', Europe 2020 flagships, the communications on 'Opening up Education' and on employment 'Towards a job-rich recovery', and the 'Grand Coalition for Digital Jobs' –are a testament to this commitment (see figure below).
Nor can the rationale for such interventions be questioned. According to the 2014 digital agenda scoreboard, 47% of Europeans have low or no digital skills whilst 23% of Europeans have no digital skills at all. Conversely, the deficit of ICT professional skills is expected to reach nearly one million by 2020. Further, the recent ‘eSkills for Jobs in Europe: Measuring progress and moving ahead’ has shown that 50% of EU Member States are currently only exhibiting model levels of policy activity on e-skills for competitive, growth and jobs.
Perhaps we are in need of a reality check here. Educational policies are entirely in the hands of national governments. The European Commission can and does attempt to influence these policies through their trusted ‘naming and shaming’ tool, for instance, by publishing surveys and studies in which the worst performers would feel pushed in a race to the top. There is no quick fix, however. Experience has shown that the best performers have put in place long-term strategic approaches, fostered multi-stakeholder partnerships and developed a host of carefully designed eskills related measures and initiatives. Even with EU funding or through national sources, activities that are not embedded in a coherent national policy in a longer term perspective struggle to survive after the initial funding comes to an end.
With this in mind, the aforementioned ‘eSkills for Jobs in Europe’ report contains a whole host of best practice examples of initiatives and measures worth examining, including:
- The Finish IT project in Germany, which has a range of public and private partners, explicitly targets ICT dropouts to complete a one-year programme combining ICT qualification modules with a placement at a company.
- The Evoliris ICT Reference Centre of the Brussels Region in Belgium acts as an interface between all actors in ICT employment policies. It also carries out VET courses, job screening and matching services, as well as developing a set of ‘intermediate e-skills’ requested by employers.
- The Nokia Bridge Program in Finland was enacted by the firm following the layoff of 5,000 employees. It offers outplacement services (i.e. career counselling), as well as skill specific training and learning opportunities. Bridge also offers start-up funding, exposure to investors, and entrepreneurship training to those with a new business idea in need of backing (which has resulted in 1,000 business start-ups worldwide).
In sum, whilst the solid knowledge base that the EU offers in this area is vital, active steps in reducing eskills deficits can only be enacted by national (and regional) governments, in collaboration with the relevant VET and employment actors in each respective country.
Aaron Rajania is a senior research consultant in Ecorys UK, with a specific focus on education and employment policy and research work. Specific research areas include teacher training systems, learning pathways, quality assurance frameworks, and skills development in a work setting. He has lived and worked in a number of countries in Europe including Belgium, Germany, Hungary and the UK.