The Guest Blog

How do you measure digital skills? How do you work out whether a candidate for a job has the skills and competences that they will need to do the work? Letting people self-assess their skills can seem like a simple solution, but it brings a big risk that they will misjudge their abilities. Try a thought-exercise of assessing your own abilities with, for example, word processing software. What criteria do you use to rate yourself? Self-assessment is let down by the fact that everyone measures differently. A number of recent studies, conducted around Europe, have confirmed this danger, raising the question of how best we can make sure that everyone has the right digital skills for the workforce of today and tomorrow.

Compared against other contemporary issues in European affairs, such as migration, the Eurozone or the threat of terrorism, the state of digital skills can seem like it is of low importance. But when we are facing technological change that means that the number of jobs that don’t require at least some digital skills is ever dwindling, it is clear that there needs to be focus on building digital competences in training and skills policies at all levels. Research has shown that the time lost to ‘digital ignorance’ could be costing our economies billions of Euros every year. Businesses are held back from taking advantage of new technology by workforces that are not equipped with the necessary skills, and the European economy as a whole and its international competitiveness, suffers.

Digital skills are essential. But according to research conducted in five European countries, there are shocking skills gaps in key areas of workplace digital competences. What’s more, people are frequently unaware of where they lack skills. The studies, conducted in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany and Switzerland, found frequent overestimation of digital skills. 94% of participants in the Austrian study rated their digital skills as “average” to “very good”; only 39% actually scored that well in a practical test of their abilities. 79% of participants in the German study felt “very confident” or “quite confident” about their abilities with spreadsheets, but only 38% managed to answer practical questions correctly.

It is easy to think that these problems are specific to just a few countries: that as countries move up the rankings of the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) or the ICT Development Index, they will flourish with digitally literate populations. What these studies show, featuring Denmark (first place on DESI) and Finland (first place on the Human Capital Dimension of DESI), is that digital skills gaps are present everywhere. People in societies that are thought to have gone digital a long time ago are struggling with basic workplace ICT skills, just like everyone else.

So how do we measure digital skills accurately? One interesting finding of the study in Switzerland was that holders of a computer skills certificate (ECDL) did significantly better than those without. Clearly, structured training that leads to recognised certification is a key way to close these digital skills gaps. We need efforts at all political levels, from the EU’s new skills strategy, that is expected shortly, to national and local plans for education and training. The danger of an unskilled workforce is that we will be quickly overtaken by the rest of the world. Is that a risk worth taking?

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