Urgent need to improve skills for the Digital Single Market

An EU Digital Single Market has been in the works for years and just this week the European Commission announced details of their strategy for making it a reality.

In brief, the Digital Single Market is an EU programme to streamline regulation and policies - removing online barriers between European countries. The result? Improved access to internet, a raft of new technologies, the same access to content no matter which European country you’re in, huge business growth, and more digital jobs. 

While the EU has seen a small increase in basic digital skills over the years, 39% of people still have low or no digital skills. And there’s a mismatch between the skills businesses want, and those people have in reality.

In short, we’re seriously lacking the expertise that’ll be needed for a successful Digital Single Market. Without ‘decisive action’, the European Commission predict a shortage of ICT professionals by 2020: they say 825,000 unfilled vacancies.

The Commission say the school curricula of each Member State need to be ‘urgently’ addressed and digital skills need improving ‘at all stages of life’. But it’ll be up to the member states to make sense of the Commission’s general call for ‘better digital skills for citizens’.

I thought I’d take a look at what’s missing from some key areas now, and what can be done to sort it out.

Basic ICT training

Access to ICT training is becoming increasingly urgent if they’re to benefit from even the most basic aspects of a Digital Single Market. While many of us take our digital skills for granted, there are plenty of people lacking basic skills. And the Digital Single Market is only going to raise the bar further on what an acceptable level of skill is.

Improvements to e-health, e-government, e-commerce and e-transport will all push up the level of training needed. From school age through to older age, better access to basic training is vital if we’re all equally likely to succeed in a Digital Single Market.

Learning in school

Infrastructure in schools varies considerably between European countries and only one in three teachers report frequent use of ICT in schools. The Commission say use of online educational resources is ‘fragmented’ and generally sparse in most countries.

Importantly, while digital skills and ICT are sometimes taught as separate subjects, they need to be integrated. They’re increasingly important in everything we do, with the vast majority of workplaces highly geared toward a need for digital skills. So it makes sense to teach digital skills to children at an early stage and help them realise the huge array of future job opportunities this will offer.

Upskilling at all stages

As it stands, the majority of skills are still learnt outside of formal education, through general use of computers at home for example, or day-to-day at work. The Commission say this can be problematic for employers - rarely are there mechanisms for identifying, assessing, and validating this ad hoc approach to learning. It’s then more difficult for employers to match job requirements to job seekers’ skills.

Among other initiatives, the EU has made a good start to formalise digital skills training: the e-competence Framework, a reference for 40 competencies, describes skills and capability levels.

But as specialised digital jobs increase, so too should the number of highly skilled people and EU employers are already showing concern this demand won’t be met. A 2015 survey of CEOs found 73% were worried about finding employees with key digital skills.

It’s vital then, that upskilling continues above basic training and beyond school years - otherwise we simply won’t keep up with the changing labour market.

Time for that ‘radical rethink’ yet?

The Commission say the key is to get the best education and training systems in place. They’re calling for ‘strong, modernised and innovative education systems’ to provide a digitally skilled workforce, capable of continuously adapting to a changing labour market.

While they’re promising to address these issues more precisely in future initiatives, we need to use some initiative here in the UK now. It’s a view echoed by the House of Lords earlier this year, when they reported on the state of digital skills. The consensus? It’s time for a ‘radical rethink’ of digital education, beginning at school and persisting right the way through adulthood.

About the author

Lyndsey BurtonLyndsey Burton

Lyndsey Burton, founder of Choose, an online price comparison and consumer information website, which covers personal finance and media and technology.

About this blog

Supporting the government’s ‘Digital by Default’ strategy we’re keen everyone has the skills and confidence to use IT. Here, we share thoughts on a variety of digital matters.

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November 2017

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