Staying on track for a more digitally-skilled Europe

This time last year, the European Commission had just launched the Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition, gathering governments, companies, civil society, and educators with the shared goal of tackling Europe’s digital skills deficit. At Microsoft, we pledged our commitment to the cause, announcing that we would provide 5 million of Europe’s young people with access to computer science education and digital skills training. I’m proud to say that we’re well on track to fulfilling our promise. So far, we’ve reached over 3.9 million youth. That’s almost 80% of our target, and counting.

There’s still work to be done. If anything, the uptake in the programs we support – from grants for schools and non-profits, to capacity-building programs for educators, as well the annual Hour of Code taking place this Computer Science Education Week – shows just how much of a need there is in this area. What makes it so important is the fact that there is a clear relationship between young people’s level of science, technology, mathematics, and engineering (STEM) skills, and their job prospects, which are already lower than the rest of the general population.

When young people’s skills don’t match the evolution of the labor market, they get left behind. A recent PwC survey of OECD countries found that a young person aged between 16 and 24 is 2.5 times more likely to be unemployed than someone aged 25 to 54. This isn’t just bad news for Europe’s youth. It’s bad news for Europe’s economies. When young people are absent from the labor force, we all lose.

Addressing this issue takes on an added level of urgency in the context of disadvantaged youth, for whom the skills gap is particularly pronounced. According to PwC, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are three times less likely to achieve baseline proficiency in science.

That’s why we support programs such as [email protected] in France, which provides young people who lack formal qualifications with digital skills training and the chance to complete an industry apprenticeship. Over 85% of their students secure future employment or continue with their studies. This great work has made them a finalist in this year’s European Digital Skills Awards.

Over 2,000 kilometers away in Romania, Microsoft also supports TechSoup, another award finalist focused on upskilling teenagers from the poorest regions of the country. In the past four years, Microsoft has worked with TechSoup to facilitate employee-driven mentoring for students in over 50 schools across the country. This is the biggest mentor-driven computer science program in Romania, with over 100 Microsoft employees having volunteered to take the next generation under their wings.

Another group requires special attention when it comes to acquiring future-proof skills: women. As it stands, young women’s enthusiasm for STEM subjects often trails off early on. Few women go on to pursue a career in computer science, for instance: just 30% of Europe’s ICT professionals are female. It seems that vocational training and hands-on learning experiences are key to reversing this trend. Recent Microsoft research has shown a link between young women’s creative experience with STEM subjects, and their likelihood of pursuing a career in these fields. That’s why within the programs we support, for example through #MakeWhatsNext and digital skills grants, we have a special focus on reaching more women. In the past year, we’ve provided over 780,000 young people with digital skills training – almost 60% of whom were female.

When the Coalition was launched a year ago, Commission Vice-President Andrus Ansip hailed it as giving citizens a “ticket to the digital economy.” But to help reach our dream destination of a more equal, digitally-skilled European society, everyone needs to be on board. We’ve already come a long way. Now it’s time to pick up the pace, and ensure every one of Europe’s young people is properly equipped for the road ahead.

Sylvie Laffarge
Director Philanthropies Europe

Sylvie Laffarge is Director of Philanthropies Europe. She joined Microsoft in 2006 and currently leads Microsoft's YouthSpark and Technology for Good efforts across Europe, driving alignment with European public policy priorities around issues related to youth, employment, digital skills, entrepreneurship, and CSR. Launched in 2012, Microsoft YouthSpark is a global, company-wide initiative designed to create opportunities for three hundred million youth around the world. Through partnerships with governments, nonprofits and businesses, its aim is to empower youth to imagine and realize their full potential by connecting them with greater education, employment, and entrepreneurship opportunities. Sylvie previously held leadership and external representation roles in numerous CSR, ICT policy and trade associations and non-profits in Brussels, on the subject of youth employment, ICT and skills. Prior to joining Microsoft she led the corporate community relations office for The Walt Disney Company. She pioneered Disney's community affairs strategy in Europe and was instrumental during her 17 year tenure in developing the company's strong socially responsible profile. Sylvie Laffarge brought relevance to Disney's donation portfolio and initiated signature programs such as Disney's Compassionate Program, Disney VoluntEARS and the DisneyHand effort in Europe. Sylvie Laffarge is a graduate and post-graduate of the University of La Sorbonne in Paris.