Bridging the digital skills gap in Europe is about more than just equipping people for the jobs of the future, writes Ilona Kish
Digital technology is already transforming all aspects of modern life – from economic activity to social interactions. There is no doubt that this transformation has the potential to bring enormous benefits. But it can also exacerbate existing inequalities. The key question is whether European society is equipped to keep up with the relentless pace of change.
The European Commission’s recent White Paper on the Future of Europe notes that “increased use of technology and automation will affect all jobs and industries [and] making the most of the new opportunities will require a massive investment in skills and a major rethink of education and lifelong learning systems.” This means looking not only at what skills people need to develop, but also how they are taught them and even where they are learning them.
The reality is that the nature of the challenge is constantly evolving. People are being trained to equip them with the skills to flourish in jobs that do not exist yet, and we may not even have imagined at this point.
We are not just talking about building cutting edge expertise that will give Europe a competitive advantage over other regions of the world (and the Brits) but also the basic attributes needed to function in the workplace of the future. What is now considered ‘smart’ will soon be seen as normal.
And it is not only about jobs. The digital skills gap will increasingly impact on how people go about their daily lives. Governments are using technology to make the delivery of public and social services more efficient.
However, there is a risk that the largest segments of society will struggle to access e-government solutions, unless we urgently do something about the fact that in the digital single market we are trying to build, almost half of the European population still lacks basic digital skills and 20% of Europeans have no digital skills at all.
No single institution or sector of activity can provide the answer to this problem. Governments need to keep upskilling at the top of their policy agendas. Public education will have a crucial role to play as it has always done. And employers will need to invest more than ever in providing lifelong learning opportunities to staff and management if they are to remain relevant and competitive in a changing world.
But what of the many so-called NEETS who are not in education, employment or training? Or the many thousands of self-employed workers who struggle to find either the time, resources or setting to invest in updating their skills?
What is needed is investment in and empowerment of public spaces that can act as a first port of call for digital inclusion where alternatives are not available. The good news is that we already have structures in place to meet this challenge: Europe’s 65.000 public libraries.
Libraries have played an evolving role in helping citizens keep up with technological changes – from access to a fledgling internet to access to digital tools. The contemporary library is a mini-metropolis, and often the primary entry point for people wanting to make a change in their lives.
Libraries are transforming into lively community hubs where people get together, connect, and where they have access to lifelong learning opportunities. The library offers a public space to experience new technologies such 3D printing and robotics, and a non-formal setting to learn vital skills such as coding.
With the launch of the New Skills Agenda in 2016, the European Commission is taking important steps to ensure that people are equipped to meet the challenges of the future. But more work is needed to empower the digitally excluded and to guarantee that public spaces such telecentres and libraries can have the catalysing role they are set up to play.
PL2020 will be organising the interactive “Generation Code: born at the library” exhibition at the European Parliament during Codeweek 2017. After the success of last year’s exhibition, the theme this year is “Smart Cities, Smart Citizens, Smart Libraries” – putting the spotlight on how future technologies are interacting with libraries across Europe.
In its “New Skills Agenda for Europe”, the European Commission outlines the need to spread digital skills and fight digital exclusion and acknowledges the important contribution of public libraries. In one year, 4.6 million Europeans accessed the internet for the first time at their public library and 2.3 million people attended digital literacy courses in libraries.
What does it mean to be digitally literate? The European Commission has its indicators: starting from browsing, searching and filtering information, to protecting personal data and coding. From the growing need for digital skills in the workplace, to benefiting from a range of services such as e-government and online banking, a baseline of digital skills is vital to full participation in modern society.
The danger is that with the digital revolution, we risk leaving many people behind. Nearly half of the EU has insufficient digital skills and nearly one in five people has never used the internet.
Older people and marginalised groups are especially at risk of digital exclusion. But the issue of digital illiteracy is also systemic in education; only 30% of students in the EU can be considered as digitally competent.
This is clearly a challenge for formal education systems. To meet this challenge, institutions like public libraries have an important role to play. There are 65,000 public libraries in the EU and 100 million people visit them every year.
Public libraries are not just a place to read and borrow books; they are a network of open spaces where people supplement their formal education, working on their digital skills and undertaking a huge range of other educational activities.
The data backs this up. In one year:
• 4.6 million Europeans accessed the internet for the first time at their public library
• 250,000 Europeans found a job thanks to internet access at a public library
• 2.3 million people attended digital literacy courses in libraries
The European Commission launched yesterday A New Skills Agenda for Europe, outlining how a boost in skills could help to tackle some of Europe’s greatest social and economic challenges. A “Skills Guarantee” has been announced to help people who are long-term unemployed get back to work, and a “Skills Tool Kit for Third Country Nationals” will be rolled out to help refugees and other migrants integrate into new communities.
An additional important element of the New Skills Agenda is the “Digital Skills for Europe” initiative, to boost the public’s competencies online and meet the objective of a European Digital Single Market.
We need to address digital skills in schools. However, in order to reach the widest group of people possible, we must also empower non-formal learning institutions. The vital role of public libraries as free-to-access community hubs comes into particular focus when it comes to the inclusion of hard-to-reach and vulnerable groups in policies to promote education and skills.
For example, Bozhidar Tchergarov, a blind Master’s student in Bulgaria, used his public library to learn how to use a computer and continues to attend library-run ICT training courses today. Or Filippo Gruni, a digital entrepreneur in Italy who has created a makerspace in his public library to improve the digital skills of his community.
As acknowledged by the Commission’s proposal to the Council on the Skills Guarantee, strengthening skills in Europe “should be encouraged to involve a broad range of actors, social partners, education and training providers, employers, intermediary and sectorial organisations, local and regional economic actors, employment, social and community services, libraries, civil society organisations.”
It is great to see the European Commission recognising the fantastic work being done to improve skills at public libraries across Europe. If you are interested in learning more about the role of libraries in digital skills development, visit us during the next EU Code Week (18-20 October) at the European Parliament, where Public Libraries 2020 will host an interactive exhibition on how Europe’s public libraries are meeting the digital age.
Picture credits: Eric Drost