EU Enlists Telefonica, Cisco, HP, Nokia, ARM And Others To Close The 700K IT Job Gap In Europe

Neelie Kroes, VP of the European Commission, today announced a new education initiative for Europe with help from Cisco, Nokia, Telefonica, ARM, HP and other tech titans, as well as government and other partners. The aim, she says, is to close what Europe estimates as a 700,000-IT-job gap in the region. One of the first partners, Telefonica, today also announced its own contribution to the effort: an aim to spin out, by 2015, 1,000 new startups through initiatives like its Wayra incubator, as well as training, mentoring, and job placements for thousands of others.

The news came earlier today at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland — and, as befitting a confab of the good and the great discussing Big Ideas, there was no financial terms put on any of these projects. (We have reached out to Telefonica and to Neelie Kroes’ office to ask.)

Although the economic crisis has hit unemployment hard in Europe, IT jobs overall have continued to rise at a rate of 3% annually. But IT education — like education in general — has also suffered at the hands of budget cuts. So the new initiative announced today is a classic mix of private money and public works to try to fill some of that gap. It’s coming at a time when other companies have already invested dollars and years into educational initiatives in Europe. For example, Microsoft’s robotics and coding education initiative in Estonia, where it has extensive R&D operations.

The big threat now is three-fold: not only are there not enough people to fill IT jobs that are currently open, but the worry is that when the economy does begin to bounce back, there won’t be enough people to sustain that, either, and so the jobs will go East to countries where there is skilled labor and for a fraction of the price. “Companies operating in Europe need the right people or they will move operations elsewhere,” the EU noted in a statement.

The third issue is the creation of new businesses: all of what happens on the large enterprise scale will play out in the ecosystem that thrives on new entrants and disruptive innovation that comes from the startup end of the spectrum.

“The digital skills gap is growing, like our unemployment queues. We need joint action between governments and companies to bridge that gap. The ICT sector is the new backbone of Europe’s economy, and together we can prevent a lost generation and an uncompetitive Europe,” said Kroes in a statement. “So I am expecting concrete pledges by companies, everyone I meet will be getting the same request. The Commission will do its bit but we can’t do it alone – companies, social partners and education players – including at national and regional level – have to stand with us.”

The EC is relying on good faith here — it refers to commitments from private companies as “pledges” — to commit to ways of building out opportunities for new jobs, internships, training, funding for new businesses, online education and so on. The first official round of pledges will be announced March 4-5, it says, during a conference around the so-called Grand Coalition for Digital Skills and Jobs.

Telefonica is among those that have gotten their pledges in early: they are using their Wayra incubator program to spearhead their contribution. In addition to 1,000 startups by 2015, it’s sponsoring a massive IT recruitment event called Campus Party Europe — to be held this year in London, and likely to attract over 10,000 hopefuls; promoting a coding/robotics/digital literacy program called the Think Big School by funding enrolment of 50,000 people; as well as committing to 5,000 IT jobs for young people and new graduates within Telefonica itself.

Yes, all of this is Big Idea stuff, and we’ll have to see how effectively businesses put their money where their mouths are, and whether Europe’s population bites with interest. But there has been some good traction so far on how training initiatives have worked. The EC notes that German and Spanish training voucher systems provided jobs for 60-70% of the 20,000 participants. “We should seek to replicate and scale up this idea on a European scale,” Kroes said.