If IP and wireless networks are such hot technologies at the moment, where are the people who can run them? Europe is facing a damaging shortage of skilled IT workers that could limit economic growth and international competitiveness in the region.

Three years from now, Europe will need nearly 500,000 more skilled resources than are available on the job market.

The startling scenario is revealed in a recent survey* by IDC, the research consultancy, which seeks to measure the skills gap across 31 European countries for three advanced IT competencies: wireless networking, IP telephony and IT security. The report was commissioned by Cisco Systems.

Eastern European nations face the widest skills gaps both today and in coming years, although Hungary and the Czech Republic fare notably better. Russia is expected to have a shortfall of 60,000 skilled technicians in 2008. At the bottom of the list are Turkey and the Ukraine, which will each have a spread between supply and demand of 30 per cent in three years.

But even in Europe’s leading economies, demand will significantly outstrip supply. Although their gaps may be lower in percentage terms, the absolute number of resources needed will be significant. Germany could lack nearly 88,000 technicians in 2008, while the UK and France could each face a gap of 40,000 people.

“There is a perception that ICT [training] is no big deal. But in 2008, no one country is really well positioned. This is a wake up call for all of us,” warns Yvon Le Roux, a vice president at Cisco. And there are signs that Europe is already feeling the crunch. Half of the organisations that had hired IT staff in the last 12 months reported difficulty in finding candidates with the right skills. “When companies start stealing employees from each other, there’s a gap,” says IDC analyst Marianne Kolding.

If the market mismatch is not addressed, it could hinder technology adoption in both the private and public sectors, thus impacting overall business competitiveness and economic growth in the region, warns Mr Le Roux. Likewise, ICT-driven productivity gains may falter.

The gap is being driven both by the success of new technologies and a failure of training programmes to keep pace with adoption. “It’s now easier for smaller businesses to install networks, but they still need someone to maintain them. Technology adoption is running away,” says Ms Kolding. She points to the case of Turkey, where annual growth in wireless networking is 43 per cent and in VoIP deployments is 21 per cent. “And yet they lack the base skills coming out of the [educational] system,” she warns.

The answer, say experts, is greater investment in technology skills training by both the private and public sectors.

A recent European Commission competitiveness report recognises that good infrastructure and “highly and appropriately e-skilled labour” are key to attracting foreign direct investment into the EU.

“The challenges are to better monitor the demand and supply of e-skills and to remove gaps, shortages and mismatches,” says the report.

Another aid could be greater investment in research and development. ICT represents just 18 per cent of R&D spend in the EU, compared to more than 30 per cent in other major OECD economies, reports IDC.

The greatest risk is doing nothing. “Since it doesn’t affect your performance right here, right now, there is a tendency to ignore the problem. But a backlog is building and it takes time to build a strong base of skills,” says Ms Kolding.

Students need to be enticed back to IT-related studies following the sector’s downturn, she adds.

Of course, Europe does face other ICT challenges. In a separate Cisco-commissioned report, 46 per cent of European businesses and governments felt organisational issues were a barrier to productivity growth, while 21 per cent named business process integration and 16 per cent cited technology integration. Only 7 per cent felt technology capabilities were lacking.

* “Networking Skills in Europe: Will an Increasing Shortage Hamper Competitiveness in the Global Market?,” IDC, October 2005

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