The Challenges and Opportunities of a New Employment and Skills Landscape in Europe

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Today in some European countries the youth unemployment rate straddles 40%, yet around two in five employers across the EU struggle to fill vacancies. While this problem is most acute in the technology sector – with an estimated 900,000 unfilled ICT positions in 2020, all sectors are at risk as they wrestle with the challenges of a digital agenda.

The jobs market is being transformed by technology. The transformation is so rapid and so continuous, that just like many of today’s jobs did not exist a decade ago, the next few years will see all kinds of new roles and jobs created. Both exhilarating and unstoppable, this transformation is generating a need for new skills – a need that societies right now are struggling to fulfill. Since each EU country is responsible for its own education and training systems, EU policy is designed to support national action and help address common challenges, including skills deficits, technological developments and global competition. The European Commission is taking the challenge seriously. European Commissioner Marianne Thyssen is the first Commissioner to have been given specific responsibility for skills. Ms. Thyssen has an ambitious strategy – encompassed in the flagship “New Skills Agenda for Europe” initiative launched in mid 2016. A ten-part action plan, the New Skills Agenda covers areas from funding to digital to migrants. IBM is a committed supporter of the New Skills Agenda and we actively participate in several EU-supported initiatives such as the Pact for Youth programme, the EU Vocational Skills week and the Bratislava declaration on e-skills.

The core issue that we face is a skills mismatch. Graduating students and unemployed workers rarely have the skills which are most valued in the ICT sector. To have better alignment of skills with employer needs, we need much stronger connections between education and the labour market, such as more partnerships of employers’ ecosystems, public authorities and institutions for education and learning. There is a need for real-life experiences, to transfer skills from academia and study to the workplace and a need for more focus on entrepreneurial and soft skills. Teacher training also needs more support. Often what is taught in classes on technology is out-of-date or no longer available.

Business can and must take action. Across Europe, IBM runs coding programmes for students. We provide support to Teachers’ Professional Development in computer science. We help teachers to learn about workplace skills, and what we also do is advocate that many jobs in emerging areas such as cloud computing, cybersecurity, and even digital design do not necessarily require a bachelor’s degree but instead rely on practical education and applied skills. These are neither White Collar nor Blue Collar jobs, they are what we call ‘New Collar’ jobs: valuable jobs where 21st century skills matter more than having specific degrees. These roles include programmers, developers, technicians, project managers and many more. By focusing on new collar talent strategies, businesses and public officials can take a big step towards closing Europe’s high-tech skills gap.

Expanding numbers of high-quality apprenticeships and other skills training programmes must be a top priority for businesses and governments. Preparing more students and workers for careers in well-paying “New Collar Jobs” will help ensure that all workers will benefit from the 21st century economy. One example from IBM is P-TECH, an education model that provides young people with the qualifications and professional skills they need for both university studies and the ‘new collar’ jobs that are being created by emerging technologies. In the US, P-TECH is on track to touch 20,000 U.S. students and we are preparing a launch in the EU in 2018. Another example is our work with veterans from military and forces. Inspired by our hiring plan in the US, IBM in the UK partners with veterans’ organisations to recruit and train ex-military personnel. This is particularly valuable for the severe cyber security skills shortage – there is a strong alignment with the values and skillset veterans can bring. Today we have 1800 interns and 500 apprentices at IBM sites across the EU but we see our “new collar” work in Europe as only beginning.

Although there is progress and focus aimed at tackling the skills challenge, more relentless and radical action is needed to transform the prospects of graduates and the unemployed. Businesses like IBM can – and are – playing a vital role: we are actively involved in communities across Europe on each of these areas. But that role could be even greater through increased cooperation opportunities with governments on many areas including teacher training, education system reforms, lifelong learning and job-to-job transitions, to name a few.

New technologies are upending and disrupting the employment and skills landscape. They are also generating new and exciting opportunities. For Europe to be an attractive place to live, work and invest, it is up to all of us to work together to prepare more people to seize those opportunities.

-Gary J Kildare
Chief HR Officer, IBM Europe

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