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23rd Jul 2017

Focus

EU overestimated ICT jobs gap

  • Several hundreds of thousands of Europeans could find jobs in the ICT sector in the coming years, but not as many as initially projected (Photo: Markus Spiske)

The European Union has made tackling a shortage of ICT workers a political priority in the past years, but new data shows that the EU has consistently overestimated the number of future vacancies in the ICT sector.

The overestimation has not resulted in a huge loss for taxpayers, but raises questions about the way in which politicians use contracted research to justify their policies.

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  • Two years ago, EU commissioner Ansip predicted 900,000 skilled ICT workers would be needed by 2020, a figure that has since been adjusted downwards (Photo: European Parliament)

Just two years ago, the EU commissioner for the digital single market, Andrus Ansip, wrote in his blog that “Europe could face a shortage of up to 900,000 skilled ICT workers by 2020”.

The European Commission has included the development of digital skills as one of the priorities in its digital single market strategy.

But a new study by a German research and consultancy firm, Empirica, showed an updated forecast - cutting that figure almost in half.

In 2015, Empirica had already adjusted the figure down from 825,000 to 756,000. Earlier this year, it announced that it expected the skills shortage in the ICT sector would be 500,000 by 2020.

The commission told EUobserver, through an official who could not be named, that the lower estimate was due in part to the forecasts on economic growth used in Empirica's models turning out to be too optimistic, and that “in recent years, the supply of ICT specialists has increased faster than expected”.

The commission's website has been updated to reflect the updated forecast. But it certainly makes one wonder whether the downward adjustments will continue year-on-year until 2020.

The same company previously had to backtrack on its forecasts for 2015, which now, in hindsight, make EU government leaders look somewhat overly alarmist about the supposed job shortages.

“In 2011, the European Union was faced with 300,000 unfilled vacancies in the ICT sector; if this trend is not checked, there could be as many as 900,000 unfilled vacancies by 2015,” said the official conclusions of an October 2013 summit in Brussels.

“This skills mismatch is detrimental to our economic and social policy objectives,” added the text, signed off by all of the EU's government leaders, who promised action.

But in reality, the number of unfulfilled potential jobs in the ICT sector remained more or less the same in the following years, at around a third of the expected figure.

In 2012, the figure was around 274,000. In 2015, Empirica said there were 373,000 open posts, “so the actual shortage is not as massive ... as feared two years ago”. One year later, Empirica said the skills gap figure was 270,000.

The EU commission told EUobserver that it is “aware of the limitations of any complicated mid-to-long-term forecast” and Empirica's conclusion that there is an ICT skills gap has been “corroborated by other sources”, such as national reports.

“However, due to different methodologies [of the national reports] it is impossible to aggregate the different national figures into a single European figure,” the commission official said.

Nevertheless, it was mainly Empirica's data that had been cited most often by the EU institutions and politicians when talking about the so-called digital skills gap, since at least 2009.

But nuances in that data has often been lost along the way.

In its reports, Empirica offered estimates based on different scenarios, but it was not uncommon for commissioner Ansip's predecessor for the digital agenda, Neelie Kroes, to take the highest figure, saying that “Europe faces an ICT skills gap of nearly one million workers”, without mentioning a year or any caveats.

The researchers had also stressed that what they calculated was a “demand potential” or “job potential”, not actual expected vacancies.

“It should be seen as a (theoretical) figure describing the demand potential for new ICT jobs which ... could theoretically and additionally be created in Europe due to an e-skills demand likely to occur especially in the years closer to 2020,” the researchers wrote in 2014.

“Vacancies that cannot be filled year after year will go away – projects cannot be realised, tenders not submitted, innovations will simply not be made”, they added.

According to Eurostat, the number of ICT specialists in the EU grew from 6.4 million in 2011 to 7.7 million in 2015.

The commission source told EUobserver that even though the latest estimates of the ICT skills gap are lower, “they nevertheless confirm the order of magnitude of the problem”.

“As long as there is an ICT skills gap in the hundreds of thousands - whether 500,000 or 756,000 or even 300,000 by 2020 - it would be irresponsible to reduce efforts to promote ICT specialists skills,” the official said.

“It would be different if new data suggested that the problem was, in reality, only a minor problem; however, there is no such suggestion in the data.”

Digital single market

Since education is still very much a national affair, all of the commission's efforts in this field involve non-legislative programmes.

It does not involve large sums of EU subsidies: so far, only one programme funded with the Horizon 2020 programme is part of the topic “Platform for ICT for Learning and Inclusion”. The EU's contribution to that programme is €1.1 million.

The other beneficiary of EU taxpayers' money has been Empirica.

After it received EU contracts to investigate the lack of digital skills in 2011 (€500,000) and 2013 (€900,000), the commission paid Empirica €500,000 in 2015 to promote digital skills.

On Wednesday (10 May), the commission will publish a mid-term review of its digital single market project, in which it will also assess progress made in regard to increasing Europeans' digital skills.

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