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Skills key in the EU’s digital-green transition: implications for the CEE region

Veronika Czakó will be one of the speakers at the Budapest Energy Summit to be held online on 1 December.

The just transition to a clean energy system and the digital transformation of the economy and society lie at the heart of the EU’s political agenda. The European Green Deal with its target of climate neutrality by 2050 is the von der Leyen Commission’s strategy for growth. At the same time, recovery from the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has to take place without endangering the success of the twin transition. In September 2020, the European Commission published its 2030 Climate Target Plan, stepping up its climate ambition by proposing to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030. This is necessary to enable Europe to be on a responsible path to climate neutrality by 2050. However, care must be taken to ensure a positive outcome for society as a whole.

The twin green-digital transition in combination with the COVID-19 pandemic is already having and will have further economic and social implications in the EU-27 and beyond. The EU is putting in place mechanisms intended to ensure that no one and no region is left behind. The Just Transition Mechanism mobilising at least 150 billion euros has been launched to support regions that are heavily reliant on fossil fuels and carbon-intensive industries. It is accompanied by the Just Transition Platform, which is a single access point that provides technical and advisory support to benefit from the funds. The availability of relevant skills in the right places will be crucial for the success of the transition. In line with this, skills development is one of the areas eligible for funding under the mechanism.

The expansion of digitalisation and automation themselves may exacerbate existing social and regional disparities. Demand for digital skills is increasing in the greening industries as well as in society as a whole. Automation is influencing job roles and the task composition thereof. Jobs characterised by higher routine content are more exposed. In the EU, 14 per cent of adult workers face a very high risk of automation and two in five jobs face a high probability of substantial transformation due to new digital technologies. A regional concentration in routine jobs is also observable, while high-skilled, non-routine and creative jobs tend to concentrate in big cities.

On average, over 40 per cent of people in the EU still lacked basic digital skills in 2019. The trend is however improving compared to previous years. Parallel to this, ICT professionals and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) professionals are two of the top five skills shortage occupations in Europe (next to medical doctors, nurses and midwives and teachers).

ICT and STEM professionals are also in high demand in the greening energy sector. Main human resource-related challenges in energy include the need to reskill the current workforce and the ageing of the workforce in combination with the need for skills transfer. The development of industry-specific knowledge, as well as transversal skills (such as communication, adaptability, problem solving), is indispensable for the successful green transition of the sector.

The expansion of the green economy is already having a quantitative and qualitative impact on job markets. The green transition leads to the emergence of unique new green jobs (fuel cell engineers, offshore wind turbine technicians); the transformation of some existing jobs by a substantial change in tasks, skills and knowledge (electric vehicle electrician); while increasing the demand for some existing jobs (drivers of public transport vehicles). Only renewable energy industries accounted already for 11.5 million jobs worldwide in 2019.

In order to address the skills gap, the European Skills Agenda sets out 12 actions for skills for jobs in a green and digital economy. It aims to make the right to retraining and lifelong learning a reality across Europe. Parallel to this, the Digital Education Action Plan, renewed for the 2021-2017 period, focuses on two strategic priorities: the development of a high-performing digital education ecosystem and enhancing both basic and advanced digital skills and competences for the digital transformation. EU funding sources are also available to help achieve the aims of skills policy initiatives (for example the European Social Fund Plus, Erasmus Plus, Digital Europe Programme, Horizon Europe, European Regional Development Fund).

Action across governance levels and cooperation between stakeholders is key to closing the skills gap. Sector Skills Alliances are funded by the EC to develop and implement strategies to address skills gaps in selected sectors (including in energy value chain-digitalisation and batteries for electro-mobility). As part of these, businesses, trade unions, research institutions, education and training institutions and public authorities work in partnership to close the skills gap.

Countries in the Central Eastern and South Eastern European region tend to perform worse than the European average in terms of digital knowledge and to a lesser extent in lifelong learning related indicators (enablers of a swifter transition to a cleaner energy system). Regarding the percentage of individuals who have basic or above average digital skills, the few notable exceptions include Czechia and Estonia (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Individuals who have basic or above basic overall digital skills.
Source: Eurostat.

In terms of participation in job-related non-formal education and training, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Latvia and the Czech Republic perform better than the European average (see Figure 2). In terms of the transition to a cleaner energy system, some regions in Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and Czechia are expected to be hit hard by the loss of coal sector jobs in the time period up to 2030. These countries, with the exception of Czechia, tend to perform below the EU average in the digital skills and lifelong learning related indicator.

Figure 2: Participation rate in job-related non-formal education and training by type and educational attainment level.
Source: Eurostat.

Therefore, it will be particularly important to benefit from available technical support and funding opportunities in order to close the skills gap and achieve a just green transition. The cooperation of stakeholders across the private, public, education and non-profit sectors, as well as between governance levels will be crucial to facilitate this, in the most vulnerable regions, as well as in CEE region as a whole.

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