According to the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), the inhabitants of Latvia have significantly lower digital skills than the rest of Europe. Shockingly, this is also true for youth in the 16 to 24 age group. The digital skills index for Latvian youngsters (75%) is unacceptably low even compared to the European average – 80%. When we look at our Baltic neighbors Estonia and Lithuania, where this indicator is 93%, our result is crushing.
If we agree that having at least basic digital skills is increasingly as important as having reading and counting skills, then Latvia is facing a critical situation with a quarter of youth lacking these essential skills. In the future, it will be near impossible for these young people to compete in the job market and fully realize their potential.
What got us here?
To tackle the problem, we need to understand what has caused it in the first place. There are several problems that could be causing the low digital literacy of Latvian youth:
- Not enough practical examples and role models. Youngsters lack trustworthy information sources about the real-life situation in the job market and the daily lives of relatively new professions. The mental outlook of youth is dominated by influencers, designers, coaches, and other professions that are active on social media, while technical professions remain less visible. European Commission has also stressed that Latvian youth would benefit from a greater role of tech professionals as advisers.
- Insufficient tech-related informal education opportunities for kids and teenagers. Compared to other interest education areas, access to technology groups is more expensive, and there aren’t enough governmental support initiatives for this.
- Gender equality is not supported and encouraged enough for the ICT professions. According to the Ministry of Education and Science, the number of female ICT specialists in Latvia (0.5%) is significantly lower than the European average (1.4%). In addition, gender stereotypes are associated with the IT industry. For example, a study by Tele2 Shared Service Center has found that 44% of youngsters don’t think that IT jobs are equally suitable for women and men.
Efforts at a governmental level
State officials and industry experts are beginning to realize the gravity of the situation and the urgent need for serious efforts to improve it. Ieva Ilves, a Latvian diplomat and cybersecurity policy expert, said:
We’d like to think that the digital divide does not concern us, but rather developing countries in other continents. Unfortunately, it’s not true. And we see this divide appearing already at school. EU support funds have stressed this issue as one of the priorities, and support mechanisms are in place to stop the digital gap from growing in Europe. This has to be Latvia’s priority as well, and we have to use the available support.
Active efforts to better the situation are carried out by the Ministry of Education and Science, and its Parliamentary Secretary Reinis Znotins. He is gathering entrepreneurs and policymakers to work on a strategy for improving the digital skills of Latvian citizens, and especially – youth. I have the honor of being a member of his group.
Reinis Znotins has said:
“To achieve visible progress in tackling the giant digital gap, I’ve lobbied in favor of allocating significant funding from The European Union Economic Recovery fund. I invite everyone to think out of the box and come up with ideas on how to effectively and transparently invest 70M EUR in this area.”
Reinis has prepared an informative document on the topic of digital skills, outlining the main challenges and potential solutions to the digital divide. This document demonstrates that focused governmental and private sector support is necessary to work in all directions, from strengthening youth’s digital competencies to improving teachers’ digital proficiency. It also mentions ways in which other age groups and businesses could improve their digital skills.
There are some hopeful indications that society is ready for greater digital proficiency. A survey commissioned by IT company Accenture shows that the majority of Latvia’s population (72% of those aged between 18 and 75) agree that they need to improve their digital skills in order to work with new technologies more effectively. And 80% of the people surveyed have done something within the previous year to improve their digital skills. This means that people are ready and willing to learn, especially should the right support be available to them.
Also, “Skola 2030” (School 2030) is a world-class reform program for Latvian schools, which includes digital skills in every subject and promotes the development of digital competencies such as coding and algorithmic thinking. The new framework requires an increased number of computer classes from grade 7 and allows for optional in-depth tech learning in high school.
What the tech industry can do to help
I entirely agree with Reinis Znotins’ findings, and I’m thankful that he has raised this issue at a governmental level. I believe that the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) for Latvia should come close to 100% in the next three years, and we absolutely cannot fall behind the other Baltic States.
The clock is ticking. We need to act urgently to address the dramatic digital skills gap among Latvian youth before it’s too late. By 2025 at the latest, Latvia should become the most digitally skilled country in the EU.
I’m glad to see governmental initiatives being drawn up to tackle the digital divide issue, but I’m also convinced that we won’t get far without actively involving the private sector. To reach this goal, I invite progressive tech minds to join together, forming a new NGO for reducing the digital gap among Latvian youngsters.
Together with our partners, we’ve outlined three main directions for the new Digital Skills NGO:
- Preparing skills the labor market demands (target audience: high school students). Presently, there is a mismatch between the demands of the labor market and youngsters’ skills. We need to organize activities like coding summer school, roadshows at schools, and joint activities with similar NGOs, like Iespejama Misija (Mission Possible). In addition, we could survey employers and find out what kind of digital skills would make students instantly employable.
- Promoting tech companies as desirable workplaces (target audience: 18-24 y.o.). Positioning the tech industry as an appealing work domain for young people. Planned activities would include organizing career days, joint activities with universities, and high school roadshows by the leading tech companies.
- Addressing the steadily-growing demand for tech professionals (target audience: millennials). The labor market is in need of developers, software engineers, UX designers, and other IT and STEM professions. Main activities here would include retraining people from other professions in cooperation with governmental institutions, as well as creating a high tech park in Latvia, to support Latvian tech companies by introducing tax incentives and importing tech talent.
These directions might still be tweaked and supplemented after the NGO founder board is finalized.
A call to join the new Digital Skills NGO
As outlined in the informative material by Reinis Znotins, prioritizing digital skills is in line with Latvia’s National Development Plan for 2021-2027. The Plan emphasizes the critical importance of digital skills in the global economy and stresses that the lack of such skills poses a risk of falling behind.
We can thank the standard-bearers of change like Reinis Znotins and do our best to lobby support initiatives in our professional circles.
That’s why I invite progressive tech companies to join the new Digital Skills NGO to get all hands on deck for improving the digital literacy of Latvian citizens. Those interested please contact me directly at [email protected]