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.
eFacilitators are key actors in providing digital competences for vulnerable people. Getting this profession officially recognised will multiply further formal training and mobility opportunities.
Dr. Bastian Pelka: Co-ordinator of the research unit “Education and Labour in Europe” at Social Research Centre – Central Scientific Institute of Technische Universität Dortmund. His fields of research are digital inclusion, education, occupational orientation, social innovation and ICT for learning and inclusion. He is working on EU level predominantly, engaged in several LLP, FP7 and H2020 projects. He earned his PhD in communication science, holds a position as research council and is senior lecturer at Faculty of Rehabilitation Sciences, lecturing on ICT for vulnerable people.
The European digital single market strategy is largely dependent on the ability and interest of citizens to behave as online consumers. In this regard, a complex issue policy-makers should pay more attention to is the fact that still an 18% of EU population aged 16-74 has never used the internet (EUROSTAT 2015).
Despite the role informal intermediaries like family and friends can play to help the latter profiting from the online market, still a large group of adult citizens are excluded from it – not to say from online education, eHealth, wide parts of the labour market or eGovernment.
The European digital single market needs more digitally competent citizens to succeed.
A comparative analysis of figures across countries shows an unbalanced distribution between Northern/Western and Southern/Eastern countries, evidencing the relevance of regional and national differences.
Indeed, digital exclusion seems to depend socio demographic factors: correlations with socio demographic background of internet users and “offliners” indicate that vulnerable people not only are less active on the web but do also draw less profit from their activities if they are online.
This group of “digitally excluded” persons is largely made up of people aged 65 to 74 years old, people on low incomes, the unemployed and the less educated. On the other hand, the European economy is concerned about the increasing shortage of ICT practitioner skills.
The Digital Agenda Scoreboard (2014) alerts that while “39% of the EU workforce has insufficient digital skills, 14% has no digital skills at all”. This competence gap results in a growing deficit of ICT professional skills, with an estimate of around half million unfilled ICT vacancies today, which could grow to 900,000 by 2020 (Empirica 2015), challenging the EU’s development targets related not only to inclusiveness, but also to innovativeness.
While policy on digital inclusion in the past decade focussed on providing ICT access, remarkable success can be seen in the spread of ICT access throughout Europe.
Cheap digital devices (like smartphones, TV and tablets) and sinking connectivity costs lead to an increasing percentage of Europeans having access to digital means.
The Digital Agenda Scoreboard indicates that those targets related to internet access (broadband subscriptions, regular internet use) will be mostly met by 2015, while targets related to the competence of use (using e-government, using returning forms, buying online) are in danger to be missed.
This raises the question of adequate means to mediate and multiply digital skills.
Accelerating population’s digital skilling requires targeted strategies to multiply and develop the capacities of intermediaries enabling digital learning and empowerment opportunities for all.
A survey study prepared by Telecentre Europe for the European Commission (2014) demonstrated that there are “almost 250,000 eInclusion organizations in the EU27, or an average of one eInclusion organization for every 2,000 inhabitants”.
These institutions, predominantly publicly funded, operate with few employees and small budget – meaning that while the “physical” eInclusion support structure in Europe is widely spread, it consists of small institutions.
These are telecentres and other forms of ICT community centres, public libraries, municipal centres or local NGOs, who are providing digital literacy to excluded groups as well as using ICT to support social inclusion of groups at risk of exclusion.
Among the targeted categories of the population are disengaged youth (e.g. NEETs), long-term unemployed people, domiciliary carers, migrants, or housewives – making the telecentre a space of eInclusion for a broad variety of vulnerable or marginalised groups at risk of digital exclusion.
Telecentres cover the intersection of ICT based learning (for any purpose, such as employability or leisure, lifelong learning or personal development), ICT competences (learning how to use applications, how to surf the web or how to handle a tablet) and community building (local based communities or groups of interest like senior internet cafes or telecentres for migrants).
Half of the surveyed organisations provide employability and a quarter entrepreneurship related services.
They can be categorized by the type of support they offer and the proximity to their target groups. In this respect, a four-level pattern developed for Telecentres in 2010 (but applicable to every eInclusion actor) includes the following categories:
Their local base and pedagogy are aiming at providing a low-threshold environment, empowering vulnerable people to access the digital world. This institutional setting seems a perfect match for targeting the socio economic dimension of the digital gap.
However, there is a constant need for further professionalization of eInclusion actors, as this is a quite new branch of social welfare. Existing institutions, networks, organisations and approaches need further reflection, improvement and recognition in order to expand their impact.
The actual low-threshold space of the telecentre can be regarded as one key ingredient in providing ICT access and competences; the other one is the person that interacts with those seeking ICT access, competences or social activities – such as connecting and collaborating with peers.
People who are disconnected from the digital world today show a multitude of disadvantage features: this group has little option to access the formal education system, so non-formal adult education becomes their unique option (apart from family and friends, i.e. informal learning) to get acquainted with e-skills and digital opportunities.
This makes this target group a multi-faceted disadvantaged group that will need special support on their way to the digital society. Education staff with abilities in dealing with this target group plays key role in providing digital competences.
eFacilitators are key for providing digital competences for vulnerable people, but they are in need of further professionalization.
Recent years have seen a constant rise in requirements for the educational staff working in telecentres. Telecentre staff meets challenges like reduced public funding, new labour market demands for employability concerning ICT qualifications and changing technological systems (tablets, cloud applications, apps).
On the other side, end users are requesting new services (mobile devices, online job searching, certification of competences) and new target groups are entering the digital world and face competence gaps.
These developments lead to an increasing demand in professional training for the educational staff of telecentres. Telecentre Europe (directly or through its members) has been involved in a strand of four EU financed development projects (Lifelong learning programme, 2011-2014) aiming at supporting the professionalization of telecentres, their services and staff.
One of the outcomes was the branding of the profile of the “eFacilitator” as a vocational profile of educational staff for ICT competences in telecentres. But more work has to be done: professionalization has to reach other countries, all levels of staff in telecentres and other welfare organisations that do not understand themselves right now as “telecentres”.
It is difficult to estimate the number of persons working with end users in the field of eInclusion, but taking 250,000 organisations as a basis, it seems safe to argue that around 250,000-375,000 persons in the EU are working on digital competences of disadvantaged persons.
Only tentative research has been done on the socio-demographic characteristics of this field of employment, but it seems to prevail a young, female and highly educated workforce with a high diversity of educational profiles.
This staff can be regarded as persons with high interest in social innovation and strong links between this group and social innovators could be traced through different social entrepreneurship organisations.
This staff is in need of constant training and issues such as means to initiate and sustain fundraising, certification of competences and a regular crew change rate have all to be tackled.
Recent research and development activities are aiming at these issues by developing customized and certifiable curricula for telecentres’ staff.
The aim of this on-going research and development activities is to support and secure professionalization within this new arising working field in order to make it more efficient for end users and more attractive for staff working on Inclusion issue.
Getting the profession officially recognised – either as a stand-alone profile or as specialization of an existing one – tends to multiply further formal training and mobility opportunities.
Employment prospects for e-facilitators stretch beyond telecentres, ranging from advising schools or libraries on digital training to supporting collaboration inside co-working spaces or providing ICT guidance to small business.
While one of the main issues faced by the e-skills mismatch in the IT industry is the limited interest shown by females on IT careers, the eInclusion sector is attracting women on a much higher degree (2 women every 1 man on average).
A window to increase the number of women in IT can be opened if they can experiment the social dimension of IT by acting as e-Facilitator.
The situation described above is calling for a constant development of telecentres as low-threshold specialised providers of ICT competences as a permanent jigsaw piece in providing employment and welfare support in the digital society – either for personal wellbeing or for employability.
With requirements both on the demand side (which competences are needed?) and on the individual side (which restrictions and options do users have?) telecentres are requested to constantly develop their efforts and approaches.
This process calls for a constant professionalization process that cannot be afforded without an extended formal recognition of the eFacilitator professional profile and the engagement of formal education in their preparation.
European and national/regional policy initiatives in this direction would help building a more sustainable, flexible and high quality ICT competence supporting infrastructure, ultimately redounding to the benefit of the Digital Single Market.