Europe’s digital pathway

The ‘European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion’ is drawing to a close. This should make us wonder why we still see an unacceptably high number of Europeans enduring both poverty and social exclusion. Both are being heightened by the economic crisis, but the headlines often focus on the immediate casualties of the crisis – those whose jobs and benefits come first in the firing line. The collateral damage is often less easy to spot.

In Europe, those who were socially and economically marginalised in the first place often find themselves pushed even further to the bottom of the heap. I am not simply referring here to people who are often already vulnerable – the elderly and disabled, immigrants – but also those who already face major challenges to finding work and becoming more active social players.

In our increasingly digital age, Europeans who lack basic computer skills experience social challenges that would not have existed 20 years ago. The internet certainly has not supplanted the physical space but, with an ever greater number of services migrating to the web, accessing pensions or simply being aware of basic rights can become a daunting task for many. In particular, basic digital literacy is increasingly essential to undertake formal education and find information about community groups and support services. Yet for many people who need these opportunities, access to computers and the skills to use them is out of reach.

For those of us who spend their days glued to computer screens or mobile devices it can be hard to envisage a Europe where 40% of households do not have access to the internet. But this is precisely the situation in many countries. And yet, research from Digital Europe shows that 90% of European jobs will require computing skills by 2015. People lacking those skills will only add to the stubbornly high unemployment rates and add to the challenge of social cohesion in Europe.

BusinessEurope, Europe’s umbrella group for employers and industrial bodies, recently published figures that predict that eurozone unemployment will stick at about 10% for much of 2011. This is a level it has clung to since March, and the highest since the creation of the eurozone in 1999. And beneath the headlines the individual country figures continue to tell a tale of two Europes – one in which unemployment in Germany will fall to 6.9% next year, and another in which Spain’s will rise to 20.8%.

If the EU is serious about combating unemployment and reducing poverty by 20 million – in line with its EU 2020 agenda – it is vital that all stakeholders maintain adequate levels of social spending. Governments cannot afford to compromise the future by cutting back on programmes that are the lynchpin of Europe’s long-term prosperity. Getting the marginalised into work should be as much of a priority as finding jobs for the recently redundant.

The private sector can play a major role by using its innovation and expertise to help equip people with the skills and knowledge to realise their social rights and economic potential. Public-private and not-for-profit partnerships are excellent ways to share intellectual capital and technical know-how across a wide range of sectors. The European Alliance on Skills for Employability, launched in 2006 under the auspices of José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission’s president, is a collaborative effort of industry leaders to provide e-skills and employability training to underserved Europeans. So far, this initiative has reached over eight million people through local partnerships and non-profit organisations.

The European Commission and the member states need to design the incentives and instruments to train and upgrade the skills of the European workforce. In order to meet the goals of Europe 2020, the next round of cohesion funds must focus more on the provision of ICT training to prepare the youth and the workforce for the jobs of tomorrow. The European eSkills Week held this year, which was supported by the European Commission, ranks as a significant milestone to advance this agenda. This investment needs to be sustained and amplified and the information and communications technology stands ready to act as a partner. Equipping Europeans with e-skills gives them a compass with which they can navigate all walks of life – be they personal, professional or societal. The success of the new world of work and the employability of the next generation is dependent on the investment we make today.

This article has been published in the European Voice.

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