It is easy to ignore the fact that there are millions of people in Europe who have been left behind when it comes to basic skills. Even with ubiquitous technology and universal education, a staggering 70 million Europeans lack sufficient reading and writing skills, while almost half of people in Europe (45%) are effectively digitally illiterate.

For these figures to be so high is a disaster on a number of levels. For society and our economy, an unskilled work force stands little chance of being a competitive workforce. Right at the moment when skilled jobs represent the best chance of future prosperity for businesses and countries in Europe, we are in danger of being wholly unprepared.

But this is just as much a crisis for the individuals who make up that 45%. Interactions with businesses, government, and society in general, are ever more occurring through the medium of technology and the internet. From finding a job, to filing a tax return, or signing-on as unemployed and much more, computers are at the heart of the way our societies work.

The European Commission has noted the problems that low skilled workers present with its New Skills Agenda for Europe serving as a broad set of policies that attempt to address the various issues that have led to the dangerous lack of skills in such a large part of the population.

A key flank of the New Skills Agenda is the ‘Upskilling Pathways: New Opportunities for Adults’ initiative, (previously called the ‘Skills Guarantee’) a pledge to help low-skilled adults across the continent to acquire, at least, a minimum level of literacy numeracy and digital skills. The initiative, which would be coordinated by national governments, would also give participants the opportunity to work towards a formal qualification. It would be open to both employed and unemployed people over the age of 25, with funding from national governments and from EU funding programs like Erasmus+ and the European Structural Funds.

In practice, ‘Upskilling Pathways’ would likely adopt an approach of assessing existing skill levels, providing a tailored learning solution that focusses on the areas that are important to each participant, and certifying the skills and knowledge gained with a qualification.

Though it is just one of the initiatives included in the wider New Skills Agenda for Europe, ‘Upskilling Pathways’ stands out for its positioning of digital skills alongside the more traditionally recognised literacy and numeracy. This represents the first time that the European Commission has officially highlighted the essential nature of digital skills in this way, and is strongly welcome, considering the ever-growing importance of technology in daily life.

In 2015, we published a post on this blog highlighting four key areas for the European Union to focus on, in order to close the gaps between those who have digital skills, and those who don't. These were:

  1. Make digital skills a priority ay national level
  2. Embed digital skills in the Digital Single Market Strategy
  3. Fund access to digital workplace skills for all
  4. Ensure all students leave school digitally literate

The ’Upskilling Pathways’ initiative provides an, at least partial, answer to the first three of those areas. It provides a spotlight of attention that can help to make these digital skills a priority at the national level; it puts these digital skills at the heart of a key element of the Digital Single Market Strategy, and it specifically calls for the direction of funding towards the equipping everyone with the digital skills they need in the modern world.

The mission of ECDL Foundation is to raise levels of digital skills. It's a simple but essential goal. The approach with ECDL has a lot of similarities to the approach that the ‘Upskilling Pathways’ has taken: we assess peoples’ level of digital skills with diagnostic test, we provide a course in direction of learning that fit each learners’ needs with the ECDL Profile, and we certify candidates’ skills to prove that they have reached the internationally defined and recognise level of digital skills.

There is a lot of work to do in bridging the, far too wide, digital skills gap. The ‘Upskilling Pathways’ initiative would represent a strong step towards achieving this. Political agreement was reached on the initiative at that EU's Council of Ministers meeting on 21 and 22 November and the Recommendation is foreseen to be officially adopted by the end of 2016. More information can be found on the website of the European Commission.