Tuesday, June 30th, 2020

A digital and skill-centric approach to Europe’s recovery

On the 18th of June, the European Commission published the long-awaited public consultation on the update of the Digital Education Action Plan. For ESBA, the opening of this public consultation could not have come at a better moment, as it got published just before the second instalment of the #ESBAWebinars Series: ‘Leading the Digital Revolution: upskilling SMEs for recovery’. Both initiatives surfaced in the context of a European economy that is slowly opening up; and a SME ecosystem which is adapting to new challenges.

Digital illiteracy has long been a key challenge for SMEs, but the COVID-19 crisis has brought to the fore the need to come up with solutions to ensure the smooth digital transition of SMEs and the subsequent upskilling of its workforce. For some ‘traditional’ SMEs, digitalisation represents a significant investment in technology and training that many are not able to absorb.

e-Commerce is going to play a crucial role in the digital transition for SMEs, and small businesses need to be familiar with its very basics. We keep highlighting e-commerce basics or the development of  general digital skills, yet we do not think about, or address enough, the reluctancy of SME owners in providing appropriate training to their employees. The answer as to why they should invest in training is very straightforward: today’s problems will not be solved by the future generations, rather by the present day workforce. Plugging the digital skills gap today is vital to ensure that SMEs have a stable present and a solid future. To meaningfully address the challenges of sustainable growth and competitiveness, SMEs and policymakers need to commit to upskilling and share best practices on SME digitalisation.

The SME Strategy was already a big step in the right direction, one that brought digitalisation and upskilling to the forefront of the political debate. This long expectation was again reinforced in the European Commission Recovery Plan, which reiterated once more the importance of digital skills. According to the European Commission, only 17% of SMEs have successfully integrated digital technologies into their business. At ESBA, we are happy to see the European Commission’s efforts to increase this number, mainly through the Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition and Platform, the Youth Guarantee, the Digital Education Action Plan, the Skills Agenda, the Digital Europe Programme, or a Transition Fund budget allocation increase dedicated to re-skilling.

At ESBA, we see the recovery period as an opportunity to encourage and further support SMEs in the digital transition; to motivate them to look at digitalisation as a tool to help them become more agile and resource-efficient; and to see themselves as key actors in ensuring Europe’s digital sovereignty. Consequently, we call on the European Commission to ensure that the SMEs have the appropriate access to information, to continue working towards the centralisation of relevant resources, and to ensure the sufficient funding for a SME-centric digital transition.

As representatives of nearly 1 million SMEs across Europe, we are committed to building the bridge between the public and private sectors; and to accelerate the work and find solutions to, amongst others, reduce the digital skills gaps in Europe and equip SMEs with the necessary skills, tools, and knowledge to become frontrunners in the process of digitalisation. Now more than ever, this represents a key step in ensuring the recovery of the European economy and keeping European SMEs afloat.

And we have hope. The webinar organised on Monday reflected the commitment of public sector representatives, the SME community, and other big companies alike, to bring this ambition forward. From where the SME community and the private sector in general stand, it has been noted that the COVID-19 crisis has made it more pressing than ever for businesses to meet their training needs; and develop and build upon digital skills.

SMEs are the key to unlock Europe’s innovation potential. Without knowledge and skills at local, regional, national, and European levels, this will not be possible. We look forward to continuing working with EU policymakers, as well as other SME organisations and representatives from the private sector, to ensure tailored measures and initiatives which meet the needs of small businesses.