During the last year, we have all come to realise that digital skills and inclusion have been more important than ever before, for all aspects of society. Schools, businesses, even high street shops have increasingly moved online, making remote learning and work the new normal.
Some analysts have estimated that COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of digitalisation by as much as seven years in less than 12 months. However, the pandemic has also laid bare pre-existing digital divides and skills gaps, both for businesses and individuals, and increasing the risk of most vulnerable being left behind.
While there is much discussion about how to provide broadband connections and devices so that people can work – and children can learn – remotely, providing access is only part of the solution. People also need to have the digital skills to use these technologies. Before the pandemic, 42% of European did not have basic digital skills, and yet, according to the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), there is a chronic shortage of ICT specialists in the labour market: 64% of large enterprises and 56% of SMEs that recruited ICT specialists during 2018, reported that vacancies for ICT specialists are hard to fill.
Reaching underserved digital communities
Clearly, this is a not a new problem, and one that organisations across Europe have worked hard to resolve in recent years. For example, the ReDI School of Digital Integration was founded in Berlin five years ago by people convinced that technology can break down barriers and bring people together to build new solutions to old problems. At the height of the 2015 European refugee crisis, co-founder Anne Kjaer Bathel, realised that many of the new arrivals into Germany were keen to learn and contribute to their new home, and, once given the necessary digital skills, could help fill the many tens of thousands of IT vacancies nationwide.
A not-for-profit social enterprise, ReDI aims to provide students with valuable digital skills and a strong network of tech leaders, mentors and alumni to help create new opportunities for all. The school offers a variety of IT and coding courses, creative workshops, tech-talks, innovation projects as well as short term summer courses. So far, more than 4,500 students, from over 50 different countries, have completed courses in IT and coding, as well as taking part in career workshops and receiving one-to-one support from mentors.
The school has maintained a clear focus on supporting women, especially mothers. Not only are women underrepresented in the digital and IT sectors, but the school understands that mothers are often vital when it comes to sharing their new-found skills with their children.
A survey conducted last year of ReDI alumni who had completed a high-end tech skills course with the school revealed that 75% have found paid employment or internships, and 50% of them we working in the tech industry.
So far, around 45% of those who have completed a course with the school have found paid employment or internships, while 39% have entered higher education, and 5% have founded companies of their own or started freelance careers.
Maintaining support in an online-only world
Last year, Vodafone Germany and the Vodafone Foundation Germany supported ReDI as the school moved online. After all, the digital literacy students ReDI supports are among those least likely to be able to access the technology and the connectivity to work remotely.
In order to enable them to continue their studies safely from home, we provided additional equipment and data for students. Around 40% of those on the Digital Women Program in Berlin and Munich needed – and received – free data, which also meant they were able to continue their language classes, attend online workshops and events, and their children were also able to attend their online schooling.
If Europe is to make the most of its human capital, and ensure that everyone is able to play a full role in today’s digital world, projects such as ReDI need to be encouraged, supported, and replicated at scale.
Creating a truly digital Europe
According to last year’s DESI, member states are making good progress in improving their ‘human capital’ scores – i.e. the percentage of their citizens with basic digital skills. Nevertheless, there are still too many people being left behind.
Only two countries, Finland and Sweden, score more than 70 out of 100 for the human capital DESI score – and Italy, the lowest performance country, scores just 32. The gender gap also remains stark: on average, just 1.4% of ICT specialists across Europe are female.
At Vodafone, we strongly believe that programmes like ReDI are vital if Europe is to meet its digital potential and drive digitalisation uniformly and inclusively across the continent. If we are to build back better from this crisis, we need to do so in a digital, sustainable and inclusive way so we do not let our human capital go to waste. Enabling access to inclusive education and building the digital skills of the future must be a key focus of the EU and national recovery funds.
Their allocation and spend should be monitored against the true progress of digitalisation, as measured by the DESI. That is why we think that every Member State should be aiming to reach a score of 90 on the DESI by 2027.
ReDI is playing their part: thanks to greater connectivity and the support of organisations such as Vodafone, they aim to reach more than 2,000 students this year. Further help is always needed, however, and if you would be interested in supporting their students as a mentor, or supplying equipment such as laptops, you can get in touch here.
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