The digital skills gap

We are in danger of a new digital divide, between those who have access to innovative, tech-based education and the digitally excluded

The EU recently updated its Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), a composite index that assesses the development of EU countries towards a digital economy and society. It aggregates a set of relevant indicators structured around five dimensions: Connectivity, Human Capital, Use of Internet, Integration of Digital Technology and Digital Public Services.

Malta has performed relatively well in the EU digital agenda scoreboard. Connectivity and the take up of fixed broadband is well above the EU average. With an overall Connectivity score of 0.66, we rank ninth among EU countries and above the EU average. All Maltese households are covered by fixed broadband and all networks provide at least 30 Mbps.

Yet our digital skills ranking continues to be below par. Although 55% of Maltese possess at least basic digital skills, this is below the EU average of 59%. A quarter of the Maltese population has never used the internet. We are in danger of a new digital divide, between those who have access to innovative, tech-based education and the digitally excluded.

We must ensure that our education and learning systems keep pace with technological developments and harness the possibilities offered by innovative teaching and learning methods. Forecasts suggest that 90% of the jobs in the future will require at least basic digital skills. Only 25% of nine-year-old children study in highly digitally equipped schools. As such, we must be prepared to respond to the quick expansion of blended learning via digital and online media.

To fully develop our digital economy and society, we need to address our digital skills gap as a matter of urgency. In the integration of digital technology by businesses, Malta ranks 11th among EU countries.  Yet if we focus on the critical role of STEM (Science, Technology and Mathematics) graduates in maximising the opportunities offered by digital technologies in businesses, Malta is one of the worst-performing of EU Member States, ranking of 24 out of 28 countries.

The digital skills gap directly affects productivity, with executives experiencing shortfalls in IT talent, despite an increasing need to hire more IT-literate staff.

The head of BT’s Security Academy, Rob Partridge says: “We believe that the IT industry seriously needs to consider looking beyond university degrees and attracting and developing talent through vocational qualifications, new forms of online learning and apprenticeships”.

We are working hard to implement pragmatic strategies to ensure that Malta can meet EU 2020 targets. A number of immediate challenges are being addressed through programmes that explore new, flexible learning methods that embrace the potential of ICT and digital content.

One of the programmes that will help address the digital divide is the setting up of a National Skills council.  Our hope is that the Skills Council will contribute to the alignment of digital education with present and future industry skills, needs and competencies.

We need to start a constructive policy debate on labour market changes and their implications for the employability of individuals as well as the development of responsive vocational education and training systems. The human resources function within private companies is often not actively involved in digital skills development, resulting in a disconnect between training programmes and the digital strategy of the respective organisation – assuming one actually exists. If we aspire to a digital economy, then businesses must take full advantage of the possibilities and benefits offered by digital technologies, to improve their efficiency and productivity, as well as to reach costumers and realise sales.

The Skills Council will facilitate a formal partnership between educators, industry and social partners and focus on the development of work based learning environments. Within this context, digital skills for the workplace will be paramount.  We need to nurture a regime where educators and learning providers deliver short-term training that meets the needs of learners and industry, and where quality work based programmes are validated on the Malta Qualifications Framework.

We also believe that we can only start to address the gap in digital skills by supporting connected learning and digital literacies in all stages of our education system, and within a wider framework of lifelong learning. If we aspire to take full advantage of the possibilities and benefits of the digital economy – from online commerce and social media to cloud-based applications and the Internet of things – we need to start by upgrading both our education and labour systems. Only in this way can we nurture and support a more digitally literate society with much-needed 21st century skills.