Skills for the digital economy

by Simone Stelten
Consultant, Skills Beyond Schools Division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Digital economies are powered by skills. People with the high-end skills needed to invent and apply new technologies are in high demand the world over. At the same time, the portfolio of basic skills needed to navigate technology-rich environments and function effectively in our connected societies has expanded.

How severe is the shortage of ICT skills? And what needs to be done to fill the gaps?

Today, 6% of total employment in OECD countries consists of ICT-specialists and ICT-intensive occupations account for more than 20% of all employment. OECD data on Key ICT Indicators shows that countries differ considerably in the share of ICT-intensive employment, ranging from high levels such as 35% in Luxembourg or 28% in the UK to 15% in Portugal and Greece or 11% in Turkey (data for 2010). Growing skills shortages have become a global concern. The Manpower Talent Shortage Survey 2012 puts IT positions at number 5 on the global list of top 10 jobs that employers are having difficulty filling. Only three years ago, IT professionals did not even feature on this list.

Across the OECD the supply of higher education graduates from ICT-related study fields has stagnated or even declined. The share of all STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates declined from 22.7% in 2000 to 20.4% in 2010, indicating a long-term stagnation of the supply from highly demanded science and technology oriented fields. The share of computer science graduates among all graduates has stagnated at around 3% since 2000 (OECD data). Even in the United States, the homeland of computers, the share of computing graduates declined from 4.3% in 2005 to 3.1% in 2010. Similar declines in recent years can be observed in many other countries, including the UK and Germany, pointing towards a risk of ICT skills shortages in many OECD countries.

So what can employers do to fill the skills gap? The study “Building Competitiveness and Business Performance with ICT” from the business school INSEAD shows that firms, which operate in the ICT sector, need to combine the right ICT investments with strong technical talent to be competitively agile. Through the Grand Coalition for Digital Jobs employers have developed EU-wide initiatives, such as an online learning platform for ICT practitioners or open online ICT courses for secondary school teachers. Companies such as SAP set up study-programs, Microsoft will increase the number of apprenticeships and internships by 50% over 3 years, and Hewlett-Packard plans to train 500,000 IT-professionals globally by 2015. Clearly, government policy makers could do more to engage employers in meeting the skills challenges facing high value-added sectors.

What about ‘everyday ICT skills’? Survival in a digital economy now demands higher-level cognitive skills for understanding, interpreting, analysing and communicating complex information. The results of the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), to be published on 8 October 2013, will provide unique comparative data on the basic skills of adults in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments. How to foster those skills effectively is the subject of another recent OECD report on Connected Minds: Technology and Today’s Learners.

Tackling the ICT skills challenge will require new thinking and efforts to reach beyond ministerial silos and build partnerships with businesses, entrepreneurs and teachers. With its ‘whole-of-government’ approach to developing more effective national skills strategies, the OECD Skills Strategy offers a concrete roadmap for the future.

OECD Skills Strategy
OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC)
OECD data on Key ICT Indicators
Connected Minds: Technology and Today’s Learner
Photo credit: Future technology / Shutterstock

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