Europe faces a huge skills challenge. According to the European Commission, by 2020 the number of jobs for highly-qualified people will rise by 16 million, while the number of jobs held by low-skilled workers will decline by around 12 million. This kind of economic rebalancing can only be achieved by improving digital literacy and education, and in particular boosting the uptake of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. More sophisticated jobs require more sophisticated candidates.
Europe's skills challenge is inextricably linked to its quest for growth. The region's success on the world stage depends a great deal on its attractiveness to foreign investment. Our global competitiveness relies on investors being able to tap into a growing pool of talent. And the demand for that talent is increasingly technology-based. So why do many countries across Europe struggle to attract students to all-important STEM subjects?
According to research by IDC, 50% of jobs today require technology skills, and 77% of all jobs will require these skills within the next decade. In an effort to tackle growing concerns about a future skills gap, the European Commission launched the inGenious initiative to redesign STEM education. With the support of European Schoolnet, a network of 30 ministries of education in Europe, and several leading companies including Microsoft, hundreds of educators are now piloting new teaching practices to bring STEM subjects to life.
The Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) region already has a strong foundation thanks to a governmental focus on STEM subjects. The 2012 World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report praised the best performing CEE countries, Estonia and Czech Republic, for their high education standards. Likewise, Poland serves as an inspirational model - the Polish economy is still expanding at the third fastest rate in Europe, and the country has a high standard of education as well as a high rate of university enrolment.
How can we ensure the methods and tools used in today's classrooms are fit to attract the requisite number of students to STEM subjects? How can we guarantee that the teaching of those subjects is suited to the jobs of tomorrow? Building holistic learning environments that encourage the uptake of digital skills means combining appropriate infrastructure (internet access and devices) with computer literacy among students and teachers, and designing an innovative approach to the educational process. Success depends as much on inspiration as it does on the quality of teaching.
Microsoft's commitment to encouraging a new way of thinking about education is reflected in the $750 million we've invested in our Partners in Learning (PiL) program since 2003. Part of the function of PiL is to inspire greater interest in the STEM subjects. PiL is active in 29 countries in CEE alone, and gaining good traction. Educators across the region are exploring new ways to enhance learning, from using technology to understand the science of recycling in Cyprus, through to building stopmotion animation into all subjects at a Macedonian school. The latter project was one of the winning exhibits at the 2012 Partners in Learning Global Forum in Prague, and reflects a growing trend in embracing STEM topics into the wider teaching syllabus.
Digital skills can also be boosted by encouraging youth entrepreneurship. Global technology competitions such as Microsoft's Imagine Cup encourage new business ideas from students, and subsequent support and training have turned these ideas into businesses. These range from Czech student developers creating the GINA System mapping software, now in use by field workers navigating disaster zones in Haiti, Brazil and Japan, through to Ukrainian student start-up creation Enable Talk, sensory gloves that transmit sign language via Bluetooth to a Windows Phone and convert to audio. These start-up initiatives not only demonstrate the strong backbone of entrepreneurship in CEE, they also herald exciting new ways that technology is becoming deeply woven into the fabric of daily life.
There's no doubt that weaving STEM subjects into broader curricula will better equip school leavers to enter into the modern workforce. Digital transformation is a reality in many different industries, from manufacturing to mining. An education system that not only attracts more students to the STEM subjects but that also teaches them to apply their inherent digital skills in a business context is the ideal platform for strengthening Europe's competitiveness. The challenge is to identify the future builders who will step into the sophisticated jobs of tomorrow. Businesses and governments must work together to ensure they have the skills to do so.
By Don Grantham, President of Microsoft Central & Eastern Europe
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