By Joe Griffin, Senior Manager, Sustainability Strategy, Vodafone Group
The challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have been significant and wide-ranging – some of which could be anticipated, but others were unexpected. While connectivity and technology has managed to ensure that millions have still be able to work, learn and communicate, it has also exposed the true extent of the digital divide across the whole of society.
Even before the health crisis, we knew that too many young people across Europe simply do not have the skills they need to compete in the workforce. Although the EU estimated that 82% of Europeans between the ages of 16 and 24 have basic digital skills, that still leaves approximately 8.5 million young people unable to participate at all in our increasingly digital economy. And as COVID-19 has accelerated digitalisation, it is important that we take a fresh look at how we equip young people in order that they can learn, communicate, entertain themselves and participate fully in the digital society. Ahead of World Youth Skills Day, now is a good time to think of ways to create end-to-end alignment across families, schools, businesses and governments in order to make sure that no young person is left behind.
We have to acknowledge that this is not something that necessarily starts at school: the need to teach digital skills starts as soon as a child picks up their first tablet – which, given the move to home schooling, may have been sooner than some parents may have expected. From learning how to switch it on through to staying safe online, and then navigating their way through fake news, creating and interpreting content, social media, physiological safety and screen time – and, finally, knowing when to turn the device off. Children need to be able to master a range of vital skills and digital resilience long before their parents or teachers start thinking about coding lessons or robotics.
It is also important to challenge a number of assumptions about digital skills that have been around for a number of years. Many commentators believed that so-called digital natives would not need to be taught anything digital at all: unlike their parents or older siblings, they would inherently be able to navigate the online world quickly, safely and effortlessly. However, it is increasingly clear that this is simply not the case. Not only are Generation Z less able to interpret and analyse the information they come across online than previous generations, making them even more susceptible to fake news, but as their parents and teachers do not understand the variety and importance of new digital jobs, they also struggle to ensure they are well-prepared for them. Over half of young people feel that they have not received the right careers advice to prepare them for the digital economy – even though there are as many as half a million unfilled digital technology jobs in Europe.
Concerns about the digital skills gap is nothing new. All sections of society, from schools to industry, have raised the alarm and introduced a variety of programmes to try and tackle the problem – from our own programmes, such as Klickwinkle, which educates young people about disinformation on the web, and the Future Jobs Finder, which has helped over half a million young people understand which digital technology jobs might be right for them; through to Microsoft’s recent global digital learning initiative. However, there is still much to be done to build on these schemes and bring them together to create a comprehensive, holistic offer.
If we are to tackle this digital divide once and for all, we need greater co-operation between all parts of society: schools, governments and industry and parents should work together to create a future proof digital skills journey for every child in the EU. Although some bodies, such as the Global Alliance for Youth and the Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition, are co-ordinating efforts, it is still a struggle to achieve an impact at scale, in individual countries as well as across Europe, that is needed to reach every young person.
As I mentioned briefly above, companies big and small are willing to play their part, and we are already partnering with other businesses, schools, NGOs and individuals to support as many people through their digital skills journey. Between us all, we have the tools, skills and connectivity to close this skills gap. In order to make this a reality, we need further support, from financing and co-ordination, through to sharing resources and personnel, in order to create a seamless, end-to-end journey that equips our young people with the digital skills they need from being given their first device through to their first job – and beyond.
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