Why Europe Is Facing a Digital Skills Crisis

What can Europe learn from the rest of the world in bridging the skills gap?

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By Rajeeb Dey


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Europe is in the midst of the "Fourth Industrial Revolution" -- a time of rapid technological, economic and societal change that has seen the average "skills shelf life" drop to just five years. The continent is struggling to keep up with this technology-led revolution, as a recent European Commission conference revealed that 44 percent of the adult population in Europe have low levels or no digital skills at all. An additional 37 percent of the European workforce do not even have basic digital skills and many companies lack the more advanced specialized skills needed to prepare for this future.

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This digital skills crisis may come as a surprise to those who are aware of the thriving technology hubs in Europe. A report by TechNation ranked the world's top 20 tech startup cities for 2018 and the list includes five European cities: London, Berlin, Paris, Stockholm and Amsterdam. These cities have secured their positions in the global startup ecosystem, with digital tech companies in London being the most connected in the continent, second only to Silicon Valley for global connections. In a post-Brexit era, these global relationships will prove to be crucial for London to shine a light in the rest of Europe and hold its place as the world's third tech startup city.

Developing skills and talent in light of Brexit comes with specific challenges, not least due to falling numbers of talented migrants, and if the digital skills crisis is not resolved fast, it will continue to worsen in London and beyond. We need to take action today, but this is not simply a box to tick; we need to make a plan that constantly reinvests in our future. Here are some ideas from further afield:

A university for life

We may want to look to the U.S. for an example of how to invest in lifelong learning. As the Washington Post reported this month, technology and automation will wipe out tons of jobs or create many new roles. It could also do both. Universities in the United States, including University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, have already started to prepare for an age of perpetual education. According to the Washington Post, The Ross School launched a scholarship program that pays for graduates to take classes there forever.

Related: How the U.K. Can -- and Should -- Encourage Our Youth to Pursue Entrepreneurship

Thomas Malone, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, says in the article: "We need to assume people will need to keep learning throughout their lives to continue to be productive," which perfectly describes the urgent need for continuous learning.

What if British and European universities did the same? Working with innovative training providers and private companies to over lifelong opportunities to learn.

Treating learning like a pension

We need to shift our perspective on investment in our own learning -- it is no longer a luxury but a necessity. Employers and workers alike should be aware of the fact that investing in one's personal and professional development is just as important as investments made into pensions or lifetime savings. While people put away money for retirement, there's little to no effort made to contribute to future skills -- the very thing that will keep the economy productive and competitive.

The government in Singapore recognizes this phenomenon. That's why it introduced a scheme in 2015 that gives $500 to every Singaporean above 25 years of age for a start under SkillsFuture, the country's upskilling program. The scheme offers courses on everything from data analytics to cybersecurity in a bid to upskill workers before it's too late.

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We should do the same. Given Europe's skills crisis, this progressive system would put the onus on employees to invest in themselves with the option for employers to top up the sacrifice to the value of the personal tax saving they would make. Just like a workplace pension, employees would have the chance to invest in the future and capitalize on rapid tech changes rather than being left behind or lose jobs.

Some countries in Europe are starting to take note of these developments. For example, France's employment minister recently announced new reforms that will give each employee up to €800 a year to invest in their own professional development.

Here in the United Kingdom, progress is also underway, albeit slower. The government has pledged to set aside close to a billion dollars to address the country's skills shortage and to grant a 50 percent increase in immigration visas for technology workers following the Brexit vote. My company, Learnerbly, has just submitted its views to a government consultation on this exact issue.

These are steps in the right direction and make me hopeful that the U.K. and other countries in Europe start taking action to reduce the digital skills gap.

Rajeeb Dey

CEO of Learnerbly

Rajeeb Dey is the founder of workplace learning platform Learnerbly and graduate jobs platform Enternships. He co-founded StartUp Britain, an entrepreneurship campaign launched in the U.K. by Prime Minister David Cameron in 2011 and served as a trustee of UnLtd, the Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs.

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