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.