In recent months, numerous commentators have emphasised how the sudden outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a strong acceleration in all digital processes underway, making the digital transition, which has been bubbling away for many years without managing to boil over, a priority. This unexpected turn of events immediately spotlighted strengths and weaknesses of several countries: the screening activities rolled out at EU and national level are essential to identify specific weaknesses in each country, establish their causes and introduce remedies necessary to ensure digital growth that is sufficient to support the competitiveness of companies and the employability of human resources.
Given this situation, it is clear that training continues to be fundamentally important both for the public and private sectors, in terms of process innovation and interactions with the trainees.
As noted, the sore points highlighted by the European detection system should not be viewed as a criticism but rather it should steer a nation in understanding where and how to intervene. Italy’s not exactly positive situation (excluding the private sector companies as described later) shown in the 2021 DESI (Digital Economy and Society Index prepared each year by the European Commission) has stimulated it to take a number of targeted actions that should hopefully show results in the next few months.
As the document states “The Italian Recovery and Resilience Plan is the largest in the EU, accounting for a total of about EUR 191.5 billion. 25.1% of it (i.e. approximately EUR 48 billion) is devoted to the digital transition”. In addition to providing for reforms and investments for the digital transformation of the public administration, the justice system and the modernisation of businesses, the plan also specifically addresses “digital-skills development, with measures aimed at improving the basic digital skills of the general population, increasing the offer of training on advanced digital skills, and upskilling and reskilling the workforce”.
This massive undertaking is essential because DESI 2021 ranks Italy 20th out of the 27 EU member states, lagging behind significantly with respect to human capital, while enterprises perform much better and are actually well above the European average.
Italy’s strategic objectives are to strengthen and bolster the virtuous processes underway and narrow the largest gaps as quickly as possible. However, this is only possible by providing targeted training pathways to both tomorrow’s workers and those of today.
The DESI (specifically that of 2020) is the tool underpinning the first “National Strategy for Digital Skills”. Noting that “The lack of digital skills … is one of the most severe obstacles for the social and economic development of the country and … needs to become a strategic priority for our country”, the Strategy considers various lines of intervention, including that related to companies: “There is a strong need for a strategy to improve the entire workforce’s technological skills through targeted actions and establish a stronger connection between training and business to respond to the challenges of digital transformation. Innovation, introduced at the level of individuals, processes and products, should be a “must have” to strengthen Italy’s position in the global competition. Therefore, through effective training of all staff and at all organisational levels, both basic and specialised digital competencies should be improved, with particular attention to tackling the digital gender gap, raising stakeholders’ awareness of new technologies, modernising company production processes, including through effective training, concurrently improving the utilisation and access to telecommunications networks”.
All the actions aimed at the private sector have seven objectives: first, to increase the number of employees with basic and specialised digital skills, with the greater involvement of women in ICT; second, modernisation of production processes; third, train new innovative professional positions, including at executive level; fourth, greater interaction between education, research and business; fifth, increased technology transfer to enterprises; sixth, increase national initiatives on emerging technologies, and seventh, greater generalised use of internet at all levels.
Italian enterprises place tenth in Europe with respect to their integration of digital technologies with a score of 41.4 compared to the average European score of 37.6. Specifically, 69% of the Italian SMEs have at least a basic level of digital intensity compared to the average EU of 60%. The use of cloud services is also excellent (38% compared to 26% for the European average), as is the use of e-invoices (95% compared to 32%). The exchange of e-information and the use of social networks are both in line with the other EU member states (35% compared to 36% and 22% compared to 23%, respectively).
Gaps remain in the use of technologies such as big data (9% compared to 14%) and Artificial Intelligence (18% compared to 25%), and in the use of ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) for environmental sustainability (60% compared to 66%).
While enterprises hold up well in the comparison with the other European states and even come out ahead in certain sectors, there continue to be issues with human capital, the most problematic area and where decisive action is necessary. The 2021 DESI states that 42% of Italians have at least basic digital skills (compared to the European average of 56%) while 21% (compared to 31%) have above basic digital skills. 45% of the Italians are skilled in the use of software (European average of 58%) while the percentage of ICT specialists is 3.6% (compared to 4.3%), of which 16% are women (European average 19%). 15% of Italian enterprises provide ICT training (European average 20%) while 1.3% of Italian graduates study ICT (compared to 3.9%).
The DESI notes that there are gaps to be overcome: “Italy is faced with significant shortcomings in both basic and advanced digital skills, which risk translating into the digital exclusion of a significant part of the population and limit the capacity of enterprises to innovate”.
If the figures are not completely satisfactory, the response to the remedies introduced is more positive: “The National Digital Skills Strategy represents an important milestone and opportunity to narrow this gap. It is crucial to heighten the focus on human capital and continue efforts on education, reskilling and upskilling and training on the job in technology-intensive sectors”.