Mar 1, 2023 | News

Brendan Rowan
Tech, Policy and Skills
January 11, 2023

In November as part of the European Big Data Value Forum we held a session related to advanced digital skills entitled ‘Avoiding Social Pain: Catching up with Technology’. It centred on the key message that we cannot have tech adoption without the necessary skills.

Over the centuries, each massive leap in technology has been accompanied by a lag of human capacity to adapt to this and is marked by significant social pain in terms of job disruption, reorganisation of society and systems and poor productivity despite massive levels of investment. As the Industrial Revolution saw the transition from the agrarian society, so too, is our current digital transformation creating problems for society – the question is for how long, and that depends on skills. We are still in the productivity paradox – where’s our bump?

Relative productivity of advanced economies

Relative productivity of advanced economies in the 20th and 21st centuary. Source: ECB

Recently the narrative has changed from robots coming for blue collar jobs to now AI targeting white collar professionals. Jobs roles in knowledge workers are more likely to be exposed to having tasks automated and are already most involved with ICT. One would surmise that that means the automation has shifted focus, but the data from the past 10 years have shown that it is precisely these roles that have grown in number while low exposure, with low digital skills have remained static.[1]

Jobs roles in knowledge workers are more likely to be exposed to having tasks automated and are already most involved with ICT

For many years the topic of digital skills and technology development have been held in two separate conversations, mutually acknowledging one another but rarely dancing together. Too often in tech development was skills included as a minor addendum to a much larger agenda while skills development centred on frameworks and certifications, which are necessary but require time and steady development.

Tech development and deployment are being restrained not by ambition nor investment but a talent market that has reached its floor.

In the past 2 years this has all changed – we have reached the tipping point. Suddenly skills are an urgent challenge – tech development and deployment are being restrained not by ambition or investment but a talent market that has reached its floor. Our problem is not in developing leading technologies such as federated computing systems or autonomous IoT, it is in the capturing and harnessing of these technologies to provide real productivity gains and reach a virtuous cycle of combined tech and skills development.

Digital talent – harder to find

Advanced digital skills are now at the forefront of the Digital Decade with a goal of providing 20 million more ICT Specialists in Europe by 2030[2]. In fact, according to the European Data Market Monitoring Tool, in the field of data alone we already had a gap of 200,000 professionals in 2020 and that will grow to potentially 1,000,000 by the end of the decade.[3]

The existing gap of 200k data professionals in 2020 will grow to potentially 1M by the end of the decade. European Data Market Monitoring Tool.

Even in European organisations that have a well-recognised brand and position within the tech development sector, it is incredibly difficult to source the talent needed to develop the next generation of digital technologies like AI. The US digital giants not only outcompete in salaries (by significant factors) but in allure and brand.

In previous conversations with leading AI academic researchers, for leaders in their field, the salary is a factor but more so are the scale of resources at their disposal and breadth of scope available. It is not only in the tech development that the pain is being felt, but companies across Europe have also been screaming for digital talent and are increasingly facing the task of being both employer, educator, and trainer. Reasonable for large organisations but a role that is out of reach for many SMEs.

With the current ongoing correction within the tech sector[4], perhaps the era of uncompetitive talent markets led by over resourcing by non-profitable ventures will see a natural flow towards organisations and sustainable projects which require such skills.

A complex challenge

Advanced digital skills present a further challenge, they are at the apex of a pyramid which builds on long-term areas of education and touch upon many areas of policy including industrial and social. At the bottom, the first barrier is the access to the equipment and infrastructure, a key source of digital exclusion which inhibits even basic digital skills development. Digital exclusion can also be traced to trust in the digital world and the engagement with the skills development and personal investment.

Advanced digital skills are at the apex of a pyramid which touches on many areas.

Change in advanced digital skills outcomes takes time, years, and requires all stakeholders to be involved. It is a complex or wicked problem and cannot be taken on by the education system alone. The accelerated and dynamic demand for advanced digital skills is at odds with secondary and university education structures and requirements which operate within rigid structures and have an ever-older workforce themselves, for whatever reason; there is a limit to the flexibility that the education systems can feasibly demonstrate over the medium-term. Universities have already transformed over the previous decades by working closely with industry, collaborating directly, and working jointly on challenges which provides a mechanism for contemporaneity of teach. This, however, is inconsistent across Member States and further integration is needed to develop the necessary flexibility.

There is a trinity of advanced skills; technical, social, sectoral

Added to this this is the need to ensure that the right skills are in place, there is a trinity of advanced skills; technical, social, sectoral. Technical skills alone are not sufficient. Development and deployment of tech is multidisciplinary and requires excellent team skills but also a knowledge and clear understanding of the domain challenges for applications to be useful, for example what is ethical in a disaster context is not the same for retail.

What are the options?

Coordination across stakeholders – cross-policy dialogue

The challenge is the responsibility of the whole society; we need to significantly strengthen the coordination between areas from education, social, economic, and industrial policy to address it. It requires whole society and work across all existing strata.

This also includes coordination between national policy makers at a European level to share best practices, policy tools and strategies considering the unique contexts within which they are applied. A long-term vision and plans need to be put in place that are anchored within the EU strategies and are consistent across MS government terms.

Industry-education collaboration

Taking the lead from Vocational Education and Training (VET) providers, the development of close relationships and joint collaborations between universities and companies must be reinforced and grown. Digital skills are practical skills, and the real-world applications are key to successful development. This is equally relevant for the teachers as the students and can even be extended to a secondary level.

While apprenticeships are an obvious route to successful skills development, this engagement can be diverse and include projects, challenge setting, on-premises sessions, guest collaborators and extra-curricular engagement. What is important is that there is a dynamic relationship between universities, VET and companies to close the gap between market needs and graduate skills.

Application of an ‘ever learning’ approach

The tech development cycle is continuous and so too must be our approach to skilling. All members of society have to take a personal responsibility for their learning and are actively learning new digital skills throughout their lifetime. This is also applicable to educators and trainers themselves who require continuous professional development. Change is not limited to education, it is also important that VET is brought up to date as a means for ensuring continued employability as automisation disrupts tasks and jobs’ roles, and due recognition given across European societies.

The combination of skills assessment frameworks and tools to identify gaps with micro credentials will provide a flexible and adaptive push towards bridging current and future skills demands. This application of tools may also support from the bottom-up identification of those at risk of digital exclusion.

We must be positive and open to change – it is a challenge but we can take it on.

Want to get involved?

Members of BDVA – Big Data Value Association/DAIRO are encouraged to join us in TF9 Skills and continue this dialogue.

You can also join us in the Leading Europe’s Advanced Digital Skills (LEADS)journey, where we are defining the future skills demand in line with the development and adoption of advanced digital technologies such as AI, Quantum, Edge Computing and Cybersecurity. Follow @DigitalSkillsEU to keep up to date, participate in round tables and contribute to workshops.

Many thanks to our panellists and their expert contributions:

  • Robert Seidl, Artificial Intelligence Research Lab, Nokia Bell Labs
  • Martin Úlovec, Member of the Cabinet, Czech Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports
  •  Giorgio Micheletti, PMP MBA Micheletti. Consulting Director, IDC European Consulting

And also to co-organiser and fellow chair of TF9 Skills in BDVA:

[1] OECD/Georgieff and Hyee (2021)


[3]European Data Market Survey (2021) Story 3 –Skills for Data: How to Overcome Skills Gaps and Develop Competent Data Professionals