Goal of knowledge-based economy threatened by growing IT skills gap

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Series Details Vol 7, No.12, 22.3.01, p12
Publication Date 22/03/2001
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Date: 22/03/01

By John Shelley

ANYONE picking up the recruitment pages of a European newspaper will notice that a huge proportion of the jobs on offer either revolve around computers or require information technology skills.

What they may not have stopped to consider are the economic consequences of so many positions going unfilled when the pattern is repeated across virtually every town and city of the Union.

The situation is worse than it may seem. It's not that every job requires IT skills - currently around 45% of EU workers use a computer to help them earn a living. Rather the problem is that the Union does not have anything like the number of skilled people it needs to fill the astronomic expansion in the number of high-tech jobs.

Estimates vary as to the full extent of this skills gap, but there are probably around two million information technology posts vacant.

One thing is certain: EU leaders are waking up fast to the fact that if they do not fill these crucial IT jobs quickly their hopes that the bloc will soon be the 'most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy' could disappear in a puff of silicon smoke.

"We are in part victims of our own success," says Employment Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou. "Strong economic growth, rising employment and the development of the European knowledge economy have produced a growing shortage of skills, especially but not only in IT."

Narrowing the IT skills gap is one of Commission President Romano Prodi's ten priorities for Stockholm.

Prodi argues the Union must act urgently to tackle the short-term problem, while also addressing the causes that led to the mess in the first place. It is not going to be easy.

The short term fix on offer - bringing into the EU skilled foreigners - is political dynamite and one the Commission is finding hard to sell to governments wary of the rise of the extreme right.

Germany bit the bullet last year, introducing an American-style green card system for skilled immigrants, but unfortunately it turned out that computer experts were not as eager to pour into the Union as many politicians would have us believe.

The Commission says member states must do more to ensure young people get the skills they need at school and adults have access to re-training.

The number of children per PC in schools is still high, they say, with Portugal faring the worst with 65 secondary pupils per computer.

In the workplace the situation is worse. Although almost half of all workers use a computer only 22% have ever had computer training and only 16% have had training paid for by their employer.

It looks like Europeans with rare computer know-how are going to be finding the 'situations vacant' column a happy read for some years to come.

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