EU IT Skills Gap Requires Urgent Remedies

BRUSSELS (03/07/2000) - A consortium of major corporations led by Microsoft Corp. today issued a "call to action" urging European governments to act rapidly to correct the gap in IT (information technology) skills that currently plagues European Union (EU) industry.

Without immediate and long-term action, the consortium warns that the skills gap could grow from the current level of 1.2 million unfilled IT positions to 1.7 million in 2003, based on the findings of a study by market research company International Data Corp. (IDC). The IDC study, entitled "Europe's Growing IT Skills Crisis," was released at the same time as the call to action.

The skills shortage already costs the EU economy some 100 billion euros (US$100 billion) per year, according to a related study by Datamonitor. Microsoft participated in both studies.

The call to action represents part of the preparations for the upcoming Lisbon European Council on March 23 to 24 where EU heads of state and government will explore how to improve industrial competitiveness with a special focus on how to ensure that the EU labor force has IT training and is plugged into the Internet and electronic commerce.

Billed as the IT industry's contribution to the special European Council, the call to action is a joint project of Microsoft, GrowthPlus (the European association of high growth entrepreneurial companies) and the ICT Skills Consortium comprised of British Telecommunications PLC, IBM Corp., Nokia Telecommunications, Microsoft Europe Middle East and Africa (EMEA), Philips Semiconductors, Siemens AG and Thomson-CSF.

Although nothing the Lisbon Council decides will change the skills shortage situation overnight, the call to action advocates believe that agreement on a set of corrective measures linked to a clear timetable for achieving them can send out the necessary political signals for implementing the objectives at national level.

"The EU has been successful in putting down stakes in the ground such as the 1992 deadline for completing the single market," said Robin Lokerman, executive director of GrowthPlus. "If Lisbon identifies the stakes, then it will have been a success."

Immediate actions identified by the call to action draw heavily on public/private training partnerships. The proposed steps include a benchmark exercise in which governments and industry identify the number of persons presently receiving IT training and then undertake to significantly increase that figure over the next 18 months.

"It takes only a few thousand (U.S.) dollars to train a person to be IT proficient and employable," said Bernard Vergnes, chairman of Microsoft EMEA.

When this figure is compared to the average $50,000 salary that IT professionals earn, the training cost could be easily amortized by governments in taxation, according to the call to action advocates.

Vergnes also pointed out that the low cost of IT training reflects the fact that "a lot of the gap is just a question of fine-tuning existing education systems."

The call to action also identifies two key areas of skills for priority training -- the skills needed to develop technology such as Internet-based networks, and those skills which combine general technical knowledge and business training thus ensuring that IT infrastructures are flexible.

Increased funding and tax incentives are also essential to ensure rapid introduction of IT training programs, according to the call to action.

Longer term actions entail educational reform to eliminate the IT skills gap altogether. It is in this area that national governments must take the lead, because although industry and the European Commission (EC) can provide support, only governments have the authority. The call to action emphasizes the need for all teachers to be IT-literate and to actively encourage their students to use information technology across curricular and non-curricular activities.

The call to action also urges the EU to adopt a comprehensive package of measures to stimulate entrepreneurship and innovation notably by reforming bankruptcy and tax laws.

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