Envious Europe plans green card for skills

Despite the global downturn in the Internet sector, there is still a desperate shortage of skilled Information Technology workers in Europe.

According to a study conducted by International Data Corp. last year, the overall demand for IT experts in Europe is expected to grow from 10 million to 13 million by 2003, and conservative estimates are that the continent will fall 1.7 million workers short. Researchers at EITO (the European IT Observatory) estimate that the IT skills gap will be even larger, leaving 3.8 million unfilled IT positions by 2003.

There are two distinct skill shortages: IT technicians and IT professionals who have been educated to university level. In the long term, the European Commission wants to address the problem by increasing the output of IT students at universities and by encouraging lifetime learning.

But since the skills gap needs to be addressed more urgently than that - companies need workers now, not in a few years' time - EU information society commissioner Erkki Liikanen thinks it is important to turn to markets outside Europe. "An EU green card could possibly ease some of the pressure," he says, referring to the similar system operating in the US.

Liikanen's proposal has been met with scepticism by pan-European trade unions. Wim Bergans, spokesperson for the General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, believes the green-card approach would only cause problems in the countries from where the IT workers were poached. "We think the issue is larger than can be coped with just by issuing work permits. A green card might create a brain-drain in Eastern Europe and this would cause problems in the EU enlargement process," he says.

Recent statistics in Sweden show that it currently lacks 5,300 skilled IT personnel. However, the shortage in Germany is more acute, totalling 75,000 workers; by the end of 2002 the gap is expected to double.

In order to meet Germany's current demand for highly qualified experts in information and communication technology, the government is prepared to grant five-year work permits to as many as 20,000 graduates from outside the EU, or to foreign students graduating from German universities in technology courses.

This tactic has not yet brought floods of IT specialists from India or Russia seeking their fortune in Germany but, with 14 million unemployed in Europe, some fear an influx could create a delicate political situation. The German labour unions claim that there are over 30,000 older IT experts who are unemployed, and they should be hired first.

Dan Andersson, an economist at the Swedish Labour Confederation, cites Ireland as an example of a European country that is solving its deficit of skilled workers in an innovative way.

"The Irish authorities have set up a fast-track programme to encourage Irish professionals living and working abroad to return home. Non-nationals [of Irish descent] simply present themselves to the nearest Irish embassy where they may be given a two-year working visa or authorisation. There is no integration cost involved either," he says.

Andersson can see only economic advantages in increasing the immigration of IT-skilled professionals. But as an employee of the Swedish Labour Confederation, he is cautious.

"In Sweden, the last time we had a specific skill that had immigration implications was 30 years ago. We need to tread carefully before we develop a fixed standpoint."

Sweden, as the present EU chair country, has been told by the European Commission to assemble a taskforce to investigate short-term solutions prior to the EU heads-of-state meeting in Stockholm on 20-21 March. After that meeting, the European Commission will examine the issue. It will present an action plan in 2002 to the European Council to develop and open up European labour markets by 2005.

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