Employment minister claims UKmoves to tackle e-skills shortages are a model for the EU
Ministers from across Europe met last week in Lule†, Sweden, to consider the challenges posed by increasing skills shortages in the information and communication technologies (ICT) industries. I contributed to the debate by sharing with our European Union (EU) partners the efforts we are making in the UK to tackle this, and in particular our work to encourage more women to enter ICT careers.
One of the themes of the Swedish presidency of the EU is the challenge posed by the new technologies of the Internet age. Next month's Stockholm European Council will review the progress made towards the goal set by EU heads of state at the Lisbon Summit in March 2000.
The Swedish Government estimates that there could be a shortage of 1.7 million IT specialists in western Europe by 2003.
The message is clear: skill shortages could be a major obstacle to achieving Europe's goal for full employment and becoming "the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world".
New technologies could play a major part in reaching this goal and that is why it is crucial that governments and business work together to tackle the current and potential problems before they prove a crucial impediment to growth and prosperity.
I believe that there are lessons to be learned from what we are doing in the UK. The labour market combines typically European features, such as minimum standards at work, and US-style flexibility. We have one of the highest employment rates in the EU, largely because we have more women and younger and older people in work than do low-employment countries.
Government ensures that people have the necessary basic employability skills - literacy, numeracy, basic IT competence and work experience. The result is more than one million more people in work since May 1997 and a fair labour market with work spread relatively evenly across the population.
Of course, it is important that we build on work already underway, particularly through the eEurope Action Plan. That has "investing in people and skills" as one of its main objectives. We need to build on the plan's analysis, particularly in relation to diversity in the ICT workforce.
In the UK we aim for jointly-owned strategic thinking, emphasising the views of employers and engaging them with government in framing a response. We are also encouraging industry involvement in education. Employers have a major say in the development of qualifications and we are working towards a more widely shared responsibility for vocational education.
However, skills shortages are not simply a supply-side issue. We have to ensure that the supply of skilled people is as good as it can be and that employers improve their recruitment and training practices so that talented people are brought into IT employment from a range of backgrounds.
To increase supply we are pursuing a very wide range of initiatives, some making an immediate impact on the availability of trained people, others making a long-term contribution to enlargement of the potential recruitment pool.
Community-based initiatives help people get online and develop their IT literacy. We are ensuring IT is properly taught in schools, colleges and universities. We have programmes to bring unemployed people into IT jobs. I am calling for EU action to address deficiencies in adult basic literacy and numeracy skills - both vital precursors to the development of ICT skills.
Current recruitment practices are under-using some important sources of talent and potential recruits. Too many employers take on only IT graduates, when graduates of other disciplines, and in many cases non-graduates, would meet their requirements.
Until we have raised the IT industry's game in recruiting, developing and retaining the people it needs, Europe will not achieve the Lisbon Council's strategic goal and the skills needed to take full advantage of e-business will remain in short supply. So the work we do together leading up to Stockholm and beyond is vital.
Tessa Jowell is the employment minister