A CALL TO ACTION TO BRIDGE THE IT SKILLS GAP

A CALL TO ACTION TO BRIDGE THE IT SKILLS GAP:

THE NEED FOR PUBLIC/PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP

REDMOND, Wash., Sept. 23, 1998

INTRODUCTION

The Information Society presents vast opportunities to enrich the way our citizens labour, learn, and play. But we must not take for granted the fulfilment of this promise. Hard work lies ahead if we are to ensure that Europe’s citizens have the technical skills they need to prosper in the Information Society. A major study commissioned for this Summit found that some 320,000 IT jobs were unfilled at the end of 1997 and that, if action is not taken, the number could reach 1.6 million by the year 2002 — nearly a five-fold increase.

The skills shortage in Europe must be seen as the symptom of a deeper problem. Technical literacy is quickly becoming as important as the ability to read. Yet our educational systems do not treat it as such. Too often, IT training is seen as ancillary, not central, to the educational process. The pace of technological change is far outstripping the investment we are making in our future — in our children and their education.

We need a new vision of what it means to be educated in the Information Society — one that matches the breadth of challenges and opportunities before us. Our objective must be to empower Europe’s citizens with the IT skills they need for life-long learning, both in the workplace and in private life. Life-long learning is essential because technology is pervasive, dynamic and ever-changing. Our citizens must have the technical skills, confidence, and flexibility they need to adapt over the course of their lifetimes.

THE NEED FOR PARTNERSHIP

To meet this challenge, the public and private sectors must act in partnership. Member State governments, industry, and the EU institutions, all have vital roles to play.

Member States. Educational reform is the most important area in which Member States can make a lasting contribution. Technical literacy must become an imperative of the educational process and integrated into the curriculum at all levels — primary and secondary schools, universities, and vocational institutions.

Schools must be given the tools they need. Presently schools in Europe have on average only one computer for every 30 students. This must change. Teacher training also is a key. Teachers cannot impart the skills students need unless teachers themselves understand and are comfortable with the technology.

Schools should partner with local businesses to offer practical training. The objective should be to instil in students an appreciation that IT is an essential tool for both personal life and professional success. We need to rethink the traditional boundary lines between educational institutions and commercial institutions. Schools and universities must be more in touch with the long-term needs of business, and business must be more education-minded.

Member States should encourage vocational schools and public employment agencies to move quickly to place greater emphasis on IT training, both for the chronically unemployed and those with jobs who seek new opportunities. Member States also should work now, in co-operation with the European Commission, to develop more effective information sharing on
“best training practices”
and to disseminate profiles of the skills that employees need.

Industry’s Role. Industry must treat investment in people as a top priority equal in importance to investment in R & D and capital investment. First and foremost, industry must invest more heavily in employee training. Employees must be encouraged to attend training sessions, and given time away from their routine responsibilities to do so.

Industry must strengthen the links between education, training and work life. It must promote partnerships with schools and universities to ensure that they know what skills are important. And it must work with them to make sure those skills are taught — to train today’s teachers to teach tomorrow’s skills.

Industry must also support IT training in other ways by making available industry IT specialists and training materials for teaching purposes, and donating IT equipment. This will strengthen relationships with educational institutions and pave the way for closer co-operation in recruiting, job placement, and R & D.

In addition, industry should look more closely at non-traditional sources for IT professionals. There are well-documented gaps in gender and race among IT professionals. By investing in child care, part-time work, and teleworking, businesses can encourage participation by groups that are sometimes under-represented in the IT workforce.

The companies co-sponsoring this Summit — Baan, Cap Gemini, Exact, ICL, Lernout & Hauspie, Microsoft, Sage, SAP, and Wang Global — have found through first-hand experience that industry training programs can be targeted successfully at students, recent graduates, professionals already in the workforce, as well as at the unemployed. Industry should continue to explore and expand such training programs, and to share their experiences more broadly both with each other and the private sector.

The EU’s Role. The EU is best placed to provide a framework for partnership between the public and private sectors to close the IT skills gap. The EU is already making significant contributions in this regard through funding pilot projects, encouraging joint initiatives, and drawing attention to the challenges ahead. The EU is to be commended for these efforts.

The EU should now build upon them by serving as an information conduit between industry, public employment agencies and educational institutions, disseminating information on evolving skills requirements, and gathering and distributing information on
“best training practices”
. In addition, the EU should continue to monitor progress in this area to determine what more must be done.

To provide a structure for ongoing co-operation between industry and government, the European Commission and the Member States should establish a high-level advisory group to address the IT skills gap, the broader circumstances that have given rise to it, and the rapid pace of technological change. The high level group should report directly to the Commission. It should bring together industry and public sector representatives, consistent with the importance of partnership in this area.

The advisory group must be more that a
“talk shop”
. It should be given responsibility for developing concrete proposals for implementing the partnership. As a starting point, if the Commission and the Member States so wish, the advisory group could also assist the Member States in refining their action plans, growing out of the Luxembourg Summit, in reference to IT training and employment.

CONCLUSION

Europe stands at the cutting edge of a new economy, near the beginning of a new millennium. The policies of the past cannot prepare our workers for the future. We must build new bridges — forming active partnerships with schools and working closely with government. An education system that instils appreciation and knowledge of technology will produce new IT entrepreneurs, IT business leaders, and energetic workers who will invigorate our economy and our society for years to come.

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