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Europe's Strategy to Banish Technology Skills Shortages

June 1, 2010

By Mike Stone and Jason Deign

At first blush there is little to distinguish students at the Secondary School of electrical engineering (SPSE) in Pilsen from those in any other college. The Czech youths have similar preoccupations to those elsewhere in the world: grades, work, relationships and so on.

Behind the classroom doors, however, these students are unwittingly taking part in an experiment which could be critical to the future of the European Union (EU)—and in which the Cisco Networking Academy has a central role.

Last year the EU contributed structural fund cash to SPSE for research into how Networking Academy courses would be woven into IT teaching across the Czech Republic's secondary schools and vocational training centers.

The initiative forms part of Czech government moves to restructure the way IT is taught and learned. But it also responds to a need recognized across the EU: how to ensure the Union stays competitive on the global stage in the future.

Skilled workers

Despite its leadership in industries such as oil and financial services, Europe faces increasing competition, not just from traditional trading foes such as the United States and Japan, but also from rising economic giants like China and Brazil.

This picture is not helped by Europe's declining birth rate and aging population, which equates to a dwindling labor pool and greater difficulties in finding skilled workers.

In IT, skills shortages were not so evident during the recession but a study by IDC and predicts the EU labor market may face an excess demand for 384,000 IT practitioners by 2015.

Recognizing IT know-how as critical to global competitiveness, EU policymakers are endeavoring to improve technology teaching across the Union as quickly and effectively as possible.

Technology teaching

The Networking Academy—created as a public-private partnership initiative more than 12 years ago and now serving more than 800,000 students a year across 9000-plus academies in 165 countries—is seen as a potentially valuable tool in the process.

Besides the Czech school project, a number of initiatives are underway across Europe to incorporate the Networking Academy into national and vocational curricula.

"Europe faces increasing competition, not just from traditional trading foes such as the United States and Japan, but also from rising economic giants like China and Brazil."

In Germany, for example, a program called IT Fitness (under the guidance of the European Alliance on Skills for Employability) has reached more than 1 million people since its inception in 2007 and attracted support worth €90,000 from Germany's State Street Bank.

The program offers users an online competency test and access to resources that will help them improve IT skills and potential employability—not difficult when 2008 research by Ranstad recruitment agency showed only 23 percent of 15-year-old Germans used a PC in class.

IT Fitness

IT Fitness is just one of the programs in the Skills for Employability initiative, which itself is supported by CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) Europe.

This umbrella organization has a range of ambitious objectives including the delivery of basic IT skills to 20 million Europeans.

It also aims to increase awareness of the importance of such skills when it comes to gaining employment, a critical challenge as European nations continue to grapple with the effects of recession.

Cisco is an active member of the organization, which was founded in 1995 in response to an appeal by the then European Commission President, Jacques Delors.

European competitiveness

The group currently consists of around 70 multinational corporations and 25 national partner organizations, and aims to support member companies in integrating CSR into the way they do business.

Besides helping to improve European competitiveness through CSR activities such as the Networking Academy, Cisco and other technology companies are trying to simplify European IT skills certification systems.

This challenging task is being tackled by the European e-Skills Association framework, which launched in 2007 with the blessing of EU policymakers.

Co-chaired by Cisco and Microsoft, its objective is to simplify the vast and confusing array of European IT certifications, as well as improve the global competitiveness of the European technology industry as a whole.

Skills gap

The organization's strategy comprises a two-pronged attack on Europe's IT skills gap. First, it aims to assist those citizens who wish to gain a professional certification by matching their professional qualifications to job profiles which are standardized across Europe.

Second, the program seeks to use programs such as Skills for Employability to improve overall digital literacy by addressing the skills that non-IT professionals need in their everyday jobs and by trying to raise the level of technology knowledge in the population in general.

A more standard approach to professional training will also make it easier to integrate IT skills into national education curricula, giving more people the opportunity to gain certifications with both academic and market relevance.

That is not just good news for many thousands of people across the continent—it may also be critical to Europe's prospects on the world stage in years to come.

Mike Stone and Jason Deign are freelance journalists located in Barcelona, Spain.

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