The digital skill gap is a problem that needs to be tackled
To be fair, there’ve been several initiatives that tried to tackle skill gaps in the Western Balkan and the Eastern Partnership countries. Such efforts, however, didn’t yield robust results in the formal education system, particularly in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector. This to some extent has been due to the very dynamic nature of the sector. Short-term intensive training providers are thus trying to fill the gap.
On the flip side, private enterprises have increasingly prioritized digital transformation. This’s for a good reason. Consider this: in recent years, it’s become evident that if private enterprises don’t embrace technology and adjust the skills and habits accordingly, they’re at risk of being left behind.
However, private sector enterprises in the region have been lagging in their investment for human capacities in digital transformation compared to the EU countries. Also, COVID has accelerated the need for digitalization; however, it’s a chicken and an egg problem with investments of private sector enterprises and skilled labor force.
If you think it’s nothing, think again. Throughout the years, the Western Balkan countries confronted different labor market problems in labor market structure and unemployment rates. Many factors influence the future of work, and digital change is among the most important ones.
According to the WB DESI 2019 Market Report, there’s a gap between digital skills in the European Union and the Western Balkans. The need for these skills is increasingly in demand. One of the key factors for improving the number of workers capable of keeping up in a digitally oriented environment is to increase the level of digital literacy on the regional level. But it’s also about lifelong learning where people change their profession due to the need to adjust to the future of skills—career shifts into more demanded jobs.
Let’s be a bit more specific on the ‘how’ question in the sections that follow.
Fostering ICT skills through practical training
One of the interventions of the regional program RECONOMY is on Serbia and North Macedonia. It aims to facilitate creating better economic opportunities for jobs uptake and increase income for women and young people, in particular the disadvantaged and marginalized groups.
Relevant skills development and labor market information can reduce the skills mismatch and increase the productivity of the countries of the region. This’s is because knowledge workers’ mobility has a positive and strongly significant impact on firm innovation output.
Those looking for jobs may acquire the desired skills and/or be able to execute those skills. They, however, cannot back their claims of competence with skills that are standardized across the region in particular in cases where the qualification awarded in another country isn’t automatically recognized in the host country. This’s where the regional value addition of RECONOMY comes in.
OK. You might be asking: what has RECONOMY done? It’s, for example, supported Semos Education to enable young people and women primarily to access and be able to upgrade their digital skills. The aim is to facilitate access to opportunities in jobs uptake and increase their income.
This way, Semos Education set up a career center to link skilled and certified trainees with IT companies, easing the former’s transition towards employment. By including the companies through mentorships, internships, summer schools, and talent partners modules, the trainees were able to get practical knowledge and skills.
A related question is: what does all this mean to women and young people – the target group?
Here’s Vasil Chachev, from North Macedonia. He’s one of 673 young people who attended new training courses last year, to acquire and to improve their digital skills required by the labor market. He attended an intensive three-month online training course for the occupation of IT System Administrator to get the necessary skills and land his dream job. He’s organizing, installing, and supporting a company’s computer systems, including local and wide area networks and other communication systems.
‘My main motivation for becoming part of the IT sector was a steady job and interaction with computers and computer systems,’ explained Vasil. He is curious about how processes take place in everyday computing and networking environment.
A lawyer by vocation, but from an early age highly enthusiastic about computer software, hardware, and networks, Vasil dreamed of a steady and better paying job in the IT sector. ‘After finishing the course, I made a career change which I topped with a job that gives me pleasure,’ continued Vasil.
Beyond islands of success
Vasil is just one of the millions of young people facing challenges in the labor market. His story is just the tip of the iceberg. And that’s precisely why RECONOMY seeks to facilitate improving or changing systems in the labor market to benefit more people like Vasil.
It isn’t just securing jobs but also making the jobs ‘decent enough’ – through offering more opportunities/rights for employment that generates an adequate income (relevance). While digitalization may lead to the loss of jobs, it also offers more opportunities in areas where new or improved skills are in huge demand. Job satisfaction in terms of income and (mainly for women) in the form of the ability to combine work, family, and personal life is also an important factor. Added to this, most of the ICT opportunities offer prospects for skills and career growth.
The key is to ensure training providers develop commercially sustainable models for delivering demand-driven training packages. The specific focus is on (a) ICT competencies, particularly the use of digital technologies; transferable skills including teamwork, interpersonal skills, leadership, and innovation management; and entrepreneurship skills; and (b) mechanisms for linking with the private sector for continuously updating curricula through regular engagement and job matching.
How does the above translate in the work of Semos Education?
In addition to supplying new jobs and providing better income opportunities for young people, RECONOMY supported Semos Education to expand its B2C portfolio on the Serbian market by offering internationally recognized training for occupations in demand, also facilitating employment beyond borders. Semos Education increased their internal and external operational capacities in business scaling and expanding to new markets, reinforcing the key departments of sales and marketing.
Semos Education has so far trained 673 people in North Macedonia, of which 132 were linked with a potential employer, and 155 young people like Vasil got a job or upgraded their career as a result of the training. Semos Education also established different partnership models of cooperation with 40 companies.
The replicated model resulted in five new training products introduced in the Serbian market, 224 young people applying for new cloud computing training, and 4,000 people regularly attending Global Skills Initiative (GSI) trainings in occupations like Data Analyst, Software Developer, IT administrator, and AI practitioner.
Therefore, RECONOMY contributed to its regional value addition, having more than one country benefitting from the facilitation. For instance, the GSI standardized and certified training sessions and workshops enabled Semos Education trainees to get skills relevant to the international market and compete for better-paid jobs regardless of the location they live in.
Towards branding of the Western Balkan region as a nearshore destination in the ICT sector
The past year has drastically influenced the speed of the digital shift. We’ve witnessed a rapid development of software and applications, an increased need for IT professionals, while many traditional jobs were and are still facing serious problems.
There’s no precise answer whether more and more people will lose their jobs or not. Yet, what’s evident is that the people in the Western Balkans will have to show the will to transform the way they work and live, and rather than being afraid of losing skills, they’ll need to embrace new ones.
The ICT sector knowledge generation and the facilitation of industry upgrade of the sector through training and facilitating access to new markets (through participation in international fairs) are important. Improving coordination will be key to unlocking constraints such as fragmented markets, ‘zero-sum’ competition for a limited skilled workforce, lack of governments’ awareness (advocacy), and improving the image of the sector (among women and the youth as well as regional and international clients).
Leading ICT enterprises will add value to the services of local enterprises to enter new regional and international markets and offer a regional package. With increased capacities, they’ll serve as role models to be followed by other enterprises. Through this approach, the business model that RECONOMY supports creates the basis for a ‘regional brand’ that leading ICT enterprises will promote. The business model also links with the work of other interventions in Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries (Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine) on public-private dialogue (advocacy system).