Are EU citizens ready for the forthcoming digital revolution?
Emily Schimelpfenig // 3 July 2017
Whether for personal or professional usage, the European Digital Single Market will revolutionise the economy of the European Union, but only if its citizens are ready. This digital revolution will expand the EU single market and will make goods and services easier to access for citizens. However, it requires changes in infrastructure, accessibility and quality of internet services.
In short, Digital Single Market is estimated to add €415 billion to GDP and create over 100,000 jobs. For the time being, it seems that the lack of growth in digital skills will limit its success.
As of today, about 90% of jobs are estimated to need at least some digital skills, or the ability to search, share, and create content using information technology. The problem for Europe is that as many as 44% of EU citizens have little to no digital skills.
The initiatives target the youth age group, which will be the first group to experience the fully implemented digital single market. This is also the generation that will grow up using this technology, which means they inherently have more trust and confidence on the Internet and the digital economy. The following initiatives ignore the group most in need of training, middle-aged and elderly people.
The European Union, in order to address this, created the New Skills Agenda, which has a section that addresses digital skills by calling on national governments to develop a national digital strategy by mid-2017. It was also responsible for implementing the Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition in 2016, which is an initiative that targets member states, companies, social partners, non-profit organizations and educators to tackle the digital skills gap. The Agenda also created the European Digital Skills Awards, which identifies and awards projects that have achieved a significant and measurable impact on communities lacking in digital skills. This is where Digcomping, the program that created measurable standards of digital skills for Polish citizens, arose from.
Though these initiatives work to address the digital skills gap, the research done by the Digital Economy & Society (DESI) shows the limited impact they have had. Since 2015, the percentage of individuals with basic digital skills has risen less than 1 percent. Alongside this, the number of information technology specialists has experienced little or no growth. The number of internet users is the only significant growth since 2015, rising over 8%. These numbers create a mixed bag, where though more are using the internet, they have not developed the basic skills needed for professional success.
Obviously, policy-makers can continue to ignore the group most impacted, and focus on the youth, looking forward to those who provide the biggest benefit to the digital single market. However, this option will cost jobs if they are not willing to bridge the gap themselves.
European Institutions can look at ways countries outside of the Union are working to address the digital skills gap. In Singapore, one of the freest and most innovative countries in the world, everyone above the age is given $345 USD in credit to pay for training courses. This program – known as “Individual Learning Account” scheme – allows for those who see the need to gain digital skills but may not have the time or money to do it, a chance. It should be immediately stressed the fact that a similar EU-wide program would be extremely costly in the short term for the European Union to implement. However, a Singapore style “Individual Learning Account” scheme, could help smaller states with strong economic fundamentals. As the success of the digital single market will be based on those who would receive this training, those who cannot afford to keep learning need such an option.
Another interesting alternative is for Member States to reform the way labor unions operates and ask for a more active presence from them in digital skills training. This would be especially helpful considering that many members in labor unions are in the middle age group.
Finally, there is also the option of changing occupational licensing requirements. The European Union could pull back on some requirements allowing for more focus to be placed on digital skills without it becoming over burdensome for citizens. As previous EPICENTER research highlighted, reducing the burden of occupational licensing can also boost intra-EU migration flows.
This is where the real challenge lies. The current initiatives are not enough, and the European Union will have to make changes going forward.