The eSkills Malta Foundation is the country's national coalition for digital skills and promoting jobs in the ICT sector. In its last strategy, covering 2019 to 2021, the Foundation put forward twelve recommendations for the country to adopt in order to boost the ICT sector, both from a skills and education perspective, as well as from a jobs-market perspective.
As the pandemic continued to wreak havoc on the island and beyond, several Malta-based companies with ICT job vacancies that do not require physical presence became accustomed to GiG workers who work entirely on a remote basis as work from home had become the norm. For the same reason, many foreign nationals working with local companies continued their employment by working remotely. The increase in cloud technologies and the functionality of remote platforms, following proper training, made this seem easy.
As the world of work is returning to the office, and the dust has begun to settle on this post-COVID, digitally-friendly world, the Malta eSkills Foundation has been hard at work to formulate its next three year strategy for 2022 to 2024.
Talking to WhosWho.mt, Chief Administrator at the eSkills Malta Foundation, Carm Cachia, shares that the strategy “will be influenced by the path to the European Digital Decade and the Digital Educations and Action Plan, both launched by the European Commission, in collaboration with the member states.
“It is perceived that the National eSkills Strategy 2022-2024 will impact and influence further digital transformation that Malta has embarked on for some time. This will influence Malta’s Digital Economy. The strategy is a national one and will seek to guide a wide stakeholder group across all sectors in a transversal manner. And these are valid reasons for making it unique.”
He added that the new strategy would continue where the previous one left off but will consider other different approaches to achieve higher goals.
“This will also give Malta more focus on the digital skills adoption, which, after all, is a collective responsibility by all digital skills stakeholders. But, in brief, the Foundation will advise the Government and relevant stakeholders on matters related to digital skills policies, contribute to the expansion of ICT educational programmes, instigate further reform, build more capacity in our ICT education community, and lead an ICT professionalism development.”
How does the Foundation intend to see such ambitious goals, necessary for economic and social prosperity, implemented?
Asked this very question, Mr Cachia says:
“Doing all this involves a continuation, but with more vigour, of what we have been doing in the previous strategy, namely the upskilling of the business leaders, the labour force, teachers, students, citizens, and the ICT practitioners. This requires many collaborations to be forged with the relevant stakeholders to implement various initiatives. These include focused course sessions, workshops and meet-ups, a significant awareness campaign, career guidance to teachers and students, industry visits to teachers and students, discussions and dialogues, and the support to the stakeholders with their initiatives.
“The various and important studies that we carry out usually guide us on the best way to achieve the recommended goals by engaging, as much as possible, with the Foundation's coalition partners and the many other stakeholders. Currently, we are also developing a national platform for skills and jobs. The aim is to have a central point for acquiring local information about education and training, funding, best practices, events, news, and many other digital skills tools and items. The platform will integrate with a European platform to exchange information with other European digital skills national coalitions."
Need to boost demand of ICT related courses
An intensive ICT Demand and Supply study commissioned by the Foundation in August 2021 reveals that despite projections of employment growth in the local ICT sector by close to 22 per cent until 2030, the same growth is not reflected in an increase in ICT students.
Considering the flexibility and salaries that are typically offered in ICT related jobs, Mr Cachia is asked for his thoughts as to why this trend is persisting.
"This question touches several points,” Mr Cachia attests.
“As such, the ICT sector is a very attractive sector due to the wide use and the varied work of technology sector. There is a place for everyone in the ICT industry, whether you are technical, business oriented, a problem solver analysing processes and situations, programming and testing systems, working in social media, digital marketing, designing visual screens and media, managing projects and the list goes on.”
He goes on to challenge the general perception that to work in the ICT sector, one must be a highly technical individual but underscores the need to make the ICT education more attractive to attract more students to the ICT sector.
“Unfortunately, there is a widespread impression that one needs to be technical or mathematical to study ICT.
"Sure, in ICT, there are many technical job roles, but there are as many other roles that are not technical. Even in tertiary education, there are specialised technical ICT degrees like AI and Computer Science, but others are more general. However, it is important to have very good foundations acquired through ICT studies."
"Branding ICT education and jobs as guru stuff is not a fair view for the various reasons mentioned. But still, due to this view, ICT may not be seen as attractive as a career in other areas. For the same reason, other Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers suffer from the same perception. Therefore, we need to make ICT education and the ICT environment more attractive for individuals, especially to certain sections of the society, for example, girls and women.”
Diversity and ICT
For decades, the question of how to get more women into the ICT sector has stumped employers around the world. From being traditionally less pushed into maths and science-oriented fields at the education stage to stories coming out about gender-based discrimination in big tech companies, the road to attracting the female populace to the sector has been a rocky one.
“There is a high lack of females in the ICT Industry, and, in general, for five men, there is one woman in the IT field.
“This is why there is a focus by all Governments and European organisations, like the European Commission, to increase the number the digital career by girls and women. ICT has no gender.
“As a Foundation, we promote the ICT and digital sector for what it is, a young profession, full of life and activity, diversity in projects, technology and sectors which should be considered by everyone irrespective of gender and culture.
“Although it is a young profession, it’s a profession in its own right with its responsibility, ethics and professional approach, similar to the other professions in engineering, medicine, law, architecture and many others.
“Indeed, the ICT sector has a high impact on all other professions, the economy, Industry, and society. There is no single task these days where technology or ICT does not make it better, whether it's tools in an office, robots in manufacturing, apps in weather, games and tools in entertainment and also well-being. An ICT career must be one of the most attractive of all the others.”
Digital skills and the local workforce
Rounding off our conversation, Mr Cachia is asked if the Foundation believes whether the issue of a mismatch of skills by the local workforce and the digital skills in demand for jobs available on the local market is improving, he does not mince his words:
"The answer is simple. We are improving, but not quickly enough.”
He points out that most jobs require a basic level of digital skills, which will get more pronounced in the future. "When one considers that there is still around 45 per cent of the European population without the basic digital skills, then I say that we are not improving fast enough."
Indeed, when one considers that Europe, along with the rest of the West, is experiencing an ageing population, it tends to be older generations who are less digitally savvy. This trend is easy to understand since technology has moved very fast. However, Mr Cachia points toward transforming education at every level as a key factor in solving the lack of skills and awareness.
“The gap between the skills required and those acquired is still a problem. Education and Industry must work closely with each other. According to the Demand and Supply Monitor study, recent graduates joining the ICT workforce still lack important transversal skills needed by the Industry.
“This includes soft skills, interpersonal skills, problem solving, critical and analytical thinking technical writing, teamwork, and other employability skills like service-oriented skills, leadership skills, verbal and written communication.
“This lack is even more evident in the technical degrees. The work and learn mode of studying does have an advantage if implemented in an integrated fashion. The same applies to student placements in summer or specific periods during the year.
“And, although the ICT employers highly praise the core academic content, they still state that a mismatch still exists. Hence, role experience at the right level with education is crucial. Ask any ICT leader, and they tell you that experience is essential in many roles but don't burn students; give them the right experience in balance with the education acquired. Industry certifications help a lot in acquiring the missing skills in the workforce because these are specifically designed for Industry, which is why at times are included in Tertiary Education.
“Lastly, our Demand and Supply Monitor study shows that not all employers provide the level of training needed to reduce the mismatch upskilling of further digital skills.
“The most compelling reason is the available time for the employer and employee. It is essential that commitment for general and focused training is provided to the current and future employees, even more so when emerging technologies are now more prevalent in the ICT sector.”