Economic Growth

The tech sector must show some backbone

Neelie Kroes
Non-Executive Member of the Board, Open Data Institute
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Europe has a jobs problem. A shortage of jobs is a pending social disaster and a brake on competitiveness.

Some have pointed the finger at technology, as efficient ICT systems make a range of low-skill jobs obsolete or cheaper to perform elsewhere. But far from being the problem, technology could be the answer we’re looking for. Overall an economy’s investment in ICT will generate twice as many jobs as it eliminates. Take as an example the 800,000 new jobs in the app economy – an entirely new industry – in the last five years, 300,000 of them as software developers.

These ups and downs of technology matter. There is no clearer contrast than today’s 12% unemployment rates across the Eurozone and the hundreds of thousands of ICT-related vacancies (among the 2 million unfilled positions across Europe).

Those vacancies remain because of a continent-wide skills mismatch, and a lack of trained and interested women. These gaps are a structural problem that risks derailing both lives and companies.

This problem is also demonstrated by the lack of English skills among people who would otherwise be good candidates for the vacant roles; by geographic mismatches; and by people with ICT skills that would need to be upgraded to switch to a new role.

Take our gender balance problem: years of campaigning to lift the numbers of women studying science and computing have largely failed; in some cases we even went backwards. It’s creating unbalanced organizations and even more basic struggles – where an organization will struggle to fill vacancies no matter what the category of job, because nearly half the population isn’t in the game.

Knowing the depth of these structural problems, in March 2013 the European Commission launched a Grand Coalition for Digital Skills and Jobs. Since then, 41 partner organizations have created 2,200 new digital jobs, 5,277 extra internships and apprenticeships, and have delivered training courses for an extra 269,000 people.

Partners include Cisco, Google, Microsoft, Oracle, Samsung, SAP, Telefonica, and a range of industry and civil society associations. A Pledge Tracker allows you to follow progress towards the 130,000 extra new jobs pledged for 2014.

One of the things I am most proud of with the work of our Coalition is that it helps people up the ladder – whether that means providing someone with ICT skills, turning an internship into a job, or helping people who have lost their jobs find new ones. We are committed to providing real opportunities. We don’t simply accept any pledge offered, and check to make sure it can be delivered and that it will make a significant difference.

Western leaders and the tech sector, and indeed any company relying on digital skills, must act on these issues in 2014. It is both a moral duty and an economic imperative. The technology sector must also act because it faces a number of reputations risks. From debates about taxes, surveillance and jobs, tech is no longer the golden child; it is growing up and needs to assume responsibilities accordingly. If you want to be an economy’s backbone, then you need to show backbone.

Leaders need to understand that they don’t create jobs, but they can do a lot to improve the conditions for job creation: helping connect supply and demand, funding labour mobility, standardizing qualifications, language training and so on. Executives need to know their long-term profit interest lies in a healthy economy and society.

Our Coalition is becoming a success. But we need major new commitments. We are asking companies to be bold: double trainee and apprenticeship intakes; spend 0.1% of advertising budgets on awareness about tech careers; apply the European Competencies Framework; and offer free open and online courses.

Everyone holds a piece of the puzzle. Common challenges need common answers.

Neelie Kroes is Vice President and Commissioner for the Digital Agenda at the European Commission. She is participating in the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2014 in Davos-Klosters

Image: An illustration picture shows a projection of binary code around the shadow of a man. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel 

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