E-Skills for a more innovative and competitive Europe

26.01.10
In a modern knowledge-based economy, excellence in information and communication technologies (ICT) is a crucial factor in individual and collective success. The EU’s drive to promote ICT skills, or e-Skills, has made some impressive progress. Further developing these skills throughout Europe can play an important role in meeting several objectives, from fostering innovation, competitiveness, growth and jobs to combating social exclusion. The first European e-Skills Week is due to take place in March 2010 (© text and photo: E & I online magazine).
E-Skills for a more innovative and competitive Europe

In today’s connected and increasingly networked economy and society, information and communication technologies have gone from being the preserve of the technically minded to becoming an essential skill for everyone. Everything from reading the newspaper, through shopping and banking, to dealing with the government can now be done online. In fact, high-level ICT skills (e-Skills) are becoming ever-more crucial components for business value creation and innovative products and services.

Unlocking the full potential of ICT in Europe as catalysts of economic growth, social well-being and prosperity requires a pervasive culture of excellence and quality. It is also widely recognised that e-Skills and ICT professionalism foster quality, innovation and universal benefits for the economy and society.

More generally, ICT are of vital importance not only for ICT practitioners but also to European citizens in all walks of life. For that reason, digital literacy – i.e. a person’s ability to locate, organise, understand, evaluate, and create information using digital technology – has become an increasingly recognised and important concept. And, with the rapid rate of technological change, remaining digitally literate is a lifelong pursuit, underlining the importance of lifelong learning.

Strategic focus

In order to help the EU upgrade its digital skills, make better use of ICT and integrate them into the entire spectrum of the Union’s economic and social activities, the European Commission launched, in 2007, a strategy entitled ‘e-Skills for the 21st century: fostering competitiveness, growth and jobs’.

“For the European Union and its Member States to remain successful in a global economy characterised by rapid technological change, more efforts will be needed to raise and widen the level of e-Skills of our workforce and our citizens,” emphasises the strategic document. “This will require major, sustained efforts by both Member States and stakeholders applied to a range of policy issues.”

Building on the EU’s drive to create a knowledge-based economy and the recognition of the socio-economic importance of ICT in the landmark Lisbon Strategy for Growth and Jobs, ‘e-Skills for the 21st century’ seeks not only to fill Europe’s e-Skills shortage but also to bridge the so-called ‘digital divide’, i.e. the gap between those with access to ICT and the skills to make the most of them, and those who lack these skills, which can lead to social exclusion.

This is an objective of the 2010 European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion which has identified as one of its priority areas: “eradicating disadvantages in education and training, including digital literacy training and promoting equal access for all to ICT, with particular focus on the specific needs of disabled people”.

Truly digital economy

In August, the European Commission released its ‘Digital competitiveness report’ which gauged progress made since 2005 towards transforming Europe into a digital economy. On the continent where the GSM standard was invented, there are now more mobile phones than people (the take-up rate is 119%).

In addition, the report found that, by 2008, nearly three-fifths of Europeans had become regular internet users, which represents a leap of one-third within four years. Some 80% of these had high-speed internet connections, up from only a third in 2004. With half of all households and more than 80% of businesses linked up to the web with a high-speed connection, Europe has become the global leader in broadband access.

Still, there is no room for complacency. Despite this impressive progress, a third of EU citizens have never used the internet and fewer than one-tenth of consumers have shopped online outside of their home country, undermining the benefits of the single market for both consumers and businesses. In addition, Europe still lags behind the United States and Japan in terms of its R&D investment in ICT.

“Europe’s digital economy has tremendous potential to generate huge revenues across all sectors, but to turn this advantage into sustainable growth and new jobs, governments must show leadership by adopting coordinated policies that dismantle existing barriers to new services,” urged the EU’s Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding.

Here come the digital natives

And the importance of the digital and knowledge-based economy has grown more with the current economic crisis. Globally, the EU is most competitive in the higher-tech, high value-added sectors – and global competition is becoming fiercer in these areas.

One promising avenue for the future is the nurturing of the younger, more digitally savvy generation. People aged 16 to 24, the so-called ‘digital natives’, are the most active internet users. Not only do they possess high-level internet skills, but some three-quarters of them regularly use advanced services to create and share online content, while two-thirds of all Europeans under 24 use the internet every day.

“We should seize the opportunity of a new generation of Europeans who will soon be calling the shots in the European market place,” notes Reding. “To release the economic potential of these 'digital natives', we must make access to digital content an easy and fair game.”

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