Digital Skills, Gaps, and Perceptions
Stats may lie
It is a widely known `secret` in statistics that aggregate measures, should not be trusted for decision-making and planning.
Governments, policymakers, and the private sector are dealing with the troubling Digital Skills issue. Comparing country or region indicators like — % of ICT graduates, % of ICT in the workforce, % of the population with basic digital skills, % of women in ICT — don’t provide sufficient information to plan, address the gaps, and keep up with the pace of the 4IR.
A recent study “Strategies to address the digital skills gap in the EU” by Huawei, ALL Digital and EY, reveals that over 55% of companies hire ICT professionals that are underqualified. So, although the job vacancies and the unemployed ICT graduates in the EU appear to be both down-trending 😊, the digital skills mismatch persists and impacts the bottom line of businesses.
Small businesses that are core to all economies, suffer the most as they have no ability to offer re-skilling and upskilling to their employees.
The Tree of Digital Skills
I like to think of the variety of Digital Skills like a big tree, with a core trunk and different branches. There are clusters of branches and we can trim the tree depending on the direction we aim to let it grow.
The core Digital Skills are at a general level. The European Commission has developed a framework dubbed DigComp — The Digital Competence Framework for Citizens. This framework defines a range of digital skills (21 in total) in five areas of competencies. Starting from basic skills in information and data literacy, communication and collaboration, Digital content creation (including programming), Safety, and Problem-solving.
Branching out towards the higher end of the DigComp spectrum, we need to look at the Digital Skills needed and provided for jobs both in the private sector and in the government.
The study focused in the Spanish labor market `El futuro de las capacidades digitales en España` by EY and Huawei, provides us with a detailed picture of the mismatches and challenges that are masked at the aggregate level. From the 12 `advanced` Digital Skills the study focuses on, companies report that 10 of them are of importance above the 50% level.
Data analytics (85%) and Cybersecurity (85%) are of the highest importance from the point of view of the employers. On the other hand, the mismatch in Cybersecurity between the actual level of proficiency and the level of importance is much less than that for Data Analytics. The research of the EU Digital Skills report shows that Spain had a shortage of cybersecurity professionals (albeit less than projected) in 2021, of 38k professionals. They would have needed to increase their Cybersecurity workforce by 30% to close that gap! To put this in EU context, Germany had the largest Cybersecurity workforce but at the same time had the largest shortage of 68k professionals (representing a need to increase its trained workforce by 14%).
The evidence from Spain points to an urgent need for digital skills in the areas of Data Analytics, Data Science, Robotic Process Automation (RPA), and Artificial Intelligence. The gaps in these areas are significant and companies are challenged on upskilling and reskilling in these areas. We clearly see that the smallest mismatch is in traditional technical skills like Engineering,
These levels, of course, will vary by country but the mismatches are everywhere with varying degrees.
Finland, a European digital frontrunner, has already integrated in its educational systems several competencies around AI. The country is working towards training citizens to meet workplace needs that will soon demand over ¾ of the new employees to have ICT training!
Let’s call it by its name: in the EU, vocational training has been viewed as a 2nd class option for less-skilled students. The current Digital Skills Gap needs a large focus on Vocational training and a coordinated effort to retrain teachers in universities and colleges. The future of work is about continuous learning that is certified and in collaboration with the industry.
Big Tech companies are already involved and have taken it into their hands but more coordination is needed. Microsoft is amongst the top contributors in Digital skills education in the EU. Huawei`s ICT academy is offering Free MOOCs in topics that are of great importance to their workforce and areas of expertise.
I spoke to Giorgia Epicoco, Senior EU Public Affairs Manager for Huawei in Brussels about the recent reports and Huawei`s participation at the recent UNESCO World Higher Education Conference 2022 in Barcelona. Huawei is the 2nd largest investor in R&D in the world according to the EU Industrial R&D Investment Scoreboard with more than 20% of its 14k employees in Europe working in R&D.
They are planning to establish more university/educational collaborations with the private sector. Currently, there have collaborations with 2,000 ICT academies and in 2021 they trained 7,000 teachers and 150k students in 85 countries. Their goal is to partner with 7,000 ICT academies and train 1.5 million students.
Giorgia emphasized Huawei`s Free offering of courses in AI, Cloud, 5G, as well as cross-functional and soft skills through the Seeds for the Future programme and the Schools for Female Leadership in the Digital Age. These collaborative and free programs are extremely important as all the research shows that the gender disparity in Digital Skills in Europe persists on several fronts. From a larger percentage of ICT women being unemployed and a very low representation of women at the aggregate EU-27 level. Only 20% of ICT graduates are women. Ironically, the countries that beat this low level of female participation are Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Serbia (ahead of even Finland). 
She also made me aware of another hidden challenge in the workforce: The divergence of opinions between students and companies in terms of prioritizing the mix of skills.
The Perceptions mismatch
There is a noticeable perception mismatch in the EU labor market. Students rank Digital & soft skills differently than companies. In addition, these rankings vary by country which complicates matters further as the labor market is undoubtedly international.
In the elaborate Digital Skills study for Spain, students perceive `Analytical thinking` as a top soft skill and companies consider ` Leadership and social influence` as the top soft skill. Clearly, companies value more `Leadership and social influence` because of the increasing uncertainty and disruptive nature of this era.
In the EU Digital Skills study, the EY results on the future of skills, were obtained from the Italian labor market, and show the perceptions of students on ranking the mix of soft and technical skills. Reds are high priority and grey the lowest priority. Here again you see that
` Leadership and social influence` is perceived as a soft skill of secondary importance. Robotic Process Automation is considerably lower as a pure Digital competency compared to Coding and Artificial Intelligence.
This perception mismatch cannot be dismissed and needs to be addressed with an ecosystem approach that involves the private sector, the universities, and vocational educational providers, and even the governments.
The industry speaks clearly and the labor market needs to listen. The perception gap has to be close. The European culture has to shift and encourage students and those in the active workforce, to take advantage of programs like those offered by Big Tech (Huawaei`s courses are also free) and by the European Commission programs (like Erasmus).
The industry speaks clearly: There is a huge variety of technologies for which the industry is in need to hire workers with a combination of such competencies. This is a huge opportunity and challenge. These are competencies that even in a macro economic downturn will be in high demand just because of the extreme shortage of these skills. Those that combine one or two of these pure technical competencies with the needed soft skills, will be sought after by employers. Needless to say, that one needs to think of certified Digital Skills like the branches of the Tree that need trimming (re-evaluating) so that they can grow new branches every Spring (keep up with the market needs).
`Just for Fun` take the European Digital Skills Quiz that Giorgia Epicoco mentioned to me and I took. I am `A Clumsy Creator`. What are you?
This post is part of a series of content collaborations with Huawei.
 Details in the EU report from page 46 on.
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