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Skills Shortage Challenges European Tech Industry

Lots of "digital jobs", but not enough tech talent to fill them

It’s the same old story in Europe’s job market for engineers and information technology (IT) professionals—lots of good jobs (although not everywhere), but not enough people with the right skills to fill them.  A report by the International Labor Organization tells the story:  “Skills mismatches and occupational shifts have worsened” as jobs are opening up for technical professionals in Europe.

Germany, in particular, continues to have difficulties coming anywhere near filling its engineering job openings. Less than a year ago, the Association of German Engineers (VDI) put the shortage of job-qualified graduate EEs at 12 700 vacancies. “The current number of vacancies for EEs is 13 900,” said Dr. Ina Kayser, who manages labor market analysis for the VDI. “The number rose for the first time in a few months due to better economic development in Germany.”


Meeting the demands of shortages of engineers is one thing; finding people with the right experience and skills continues to be a challenge across Europe.

Neelie Kroes, the European Union’s (EU) digital agenda commissioner, has addressed the skills gap in Europe on several occasions, calling the EU’s global competitiveness “under threat” economically and competitively by the shortage of IT and other technical specialty skills. According to Kroes, the number of “digital jobs” in the EU is growing by about 100 000 every year and the number of graduates with the required information communications technology (ICT) skills isn’t keeping pace with the demand.

Programs like the EU Blue Card, designed to promote mobility of engineering graduates across the 28-member nation EU, are starting to catch on with young engineers. The Netherlands is having some success in recruiting engineers and other technical talent, mainly from Germany, Belgium, and the United Kingdom. “International talent is of great importance to our regional employers,” says Monique List, an alderman specializing in economic affairs, labor and vocational education in Eindhoven. “The presence of the correct international talent in our region is very important for attracting and retaining international companies.” The VDI, which worked with the European engineering organization FEANI, to create the EU Blue Card and similar programs, is conducting a study of the migration of engineers moving into Germany and plans to publish its data sometime in April. (Kayser says that interdisciplinary skills are becoming more important in Germany, but there’s currently a high demand for EEs who specialize in automation and information technology.)

Liberty Global, an international cable company with operations in 14 countries (headquartered in Denver), has joined with several of Europe’s technology organizations by supporting the Davos Declaration on the Grand Coalition for Digital Jobs, a multi-stakeholder partnership of European ICT companies launched by the EU in response to a projected shortage of up to 900 000 ICT workers. The Grand Coalition is attempting to boost digital skills and job creation through creation of education and training opportunities. Liberty Global is supporting two projects, CoderDojo, an open source, global movement of coding clubs for young people, and YouRock, which addresses the ICT skills gap across 11 European countries. “The fact that up to 900 000 jobs in the ICT sector remain unfilled because of a skills gap gives the clearest indication possible of what needs to be done,” says Manuel Kohnstamm, Liberty Global’s senior vice president and chief policy officer.

In the U.K., “People who understand the link between development and operations are in high demand,” says Charlie Grub, associate director of Robert Half Technology, a global executive search firm. “The engineering market across the U.K. has been going through a period of flux. Many large businesses have been outsourcing their function or consolidating teams as the result of merger and acquisition activity, often resulting in redundancies in areas where roles are duplicated.” Grub says that small and medium-sized businesses, in contrast, are experiencing more rapid growth resulting in greater demand. Grub also says there is a natural shift as these businesses increase their headcount, particularly in engineering, manufacturing, and Internet-driven industries. As such, he says that businesses are looking for professionals who have strong mathematics and statistical acumen, particularly those skilled in Java, C#, PHP, and developing Web-based applications.

Systems engineers in the automotive sector and composite technicians in aerospace are also high on the list of current and future shortages, according to a report by John Perkins, an advisor to the U.K. government. The government-sponsored study by Perkins says much of the shortage of technical talent stems from falling enrollments in electrical and electronics engineering and mathematics at U.K. universities. The report notes that only 20 percent of students in England study mathematics beyond the age of 16, and only 40 percent of those students are women. He also says that not enough engineering graduates are entering into long-term employment in the tech sector. “Three years after graduation, just under 70 percent of male and 50 percent of female graduates from engineering and other technology programs are working in their chosen fields.” (The U.K.’s Royal Academy of Engineering has called these “troubling figures” and is conducting its own study of this and related issues.) One of the Perkins report’s 22 recommendations is “retaining those with engineering skills and encouraging them to return if they have left the profession or taken a career break.” Perkins suggests this proposal could be aided by the introduction of a fellowship scheme for returning professionals, based on an existing program for academics called the Daphne Jackson Trust. In response to the Perkins review, the U.K. government is making available US $78.3 million in funding for engineering skills, with about $48 million of that designated for employers who implement training programs that specifically address engineering skills shortages.

For a more localized perspective, Semta (the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies in the U.K.) has launched a research program in January to address technical skills gaps in Wales. “We have undertaken this research after concerns were raised in both North and South Wales on how difficult it is to find information about specific technologies and technical training in their local area,” said Bill Peaper, Semta’s national manager for Wales. Working with Industry Wales and Miller Research, Semta expected to complete the first phase of its study by the end of March, focusing on skills requirements in emerging technologies, issues and barriers faced by employers in up-skilling their employees, and how engineering talent shortages compare with other U.K. regions.

Cambridge, U.K.-based ARM Holdings, which topped more than $1 billion in annual revenue for the first time in 2013 and accounts for the design of about 95 percent of all of the chips in the world’s smartphones and tablets, are hot on the trail of often hard to find electronic design automation (EDA) specialists. Most in demand are engineers with skills in verification methodologies, such as design simulation, prototyping and formal verification. Most of these specialists staff the company’s design group in Sophia Antipolis, France.

About 60 percent of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates think there is a skills gap in the U.K., according to a survey of 300 senior managers in U.K. companies that employ engineers and other STEM graduates by YouGov. The survey was commissioned by MathWorks United Kingdom. About 63 percent of the survey’s respondents think they should have more input in the STEM curriculum in the U.K., but only 46 percent of the universities indicate they would welcome industry involvement.

Several specific market categories have been identified as falling behind in the number of people with the technical skills currently required for certain industry sectors. Cyber security and the smart grid are often mentioned. According to Burning Glass, which consults with large companies and workforce agencies, reports that companies in the U.K. posted 6 662 jobs requesting cyber security specialists with CISSP certification, from a pool of only 4 545 CISSP holders—or about 47 percent more job postings than CISSP holders in the U.K. British Telecommunications says its research found that only 20 percent of business leaders in Europe consider cyber security a major priority in their business, compared to 41 percent in the U.S. and 30 percent globally. Similarly, 44 percent of directors and senior decision makers in Europe that participated in the BT study said they are given training in IT security, compared to 86 percent in the U.S.

Meanwhile, several academic programs have been developed across Europe in response to the demand from industry and government for tech professionals with cyber skills. IBM, for one, has partnered with more than 200 universities around the world, including several in Europe. One is Technische Universitat Darmstadt in Germany, which established a new Security by Design Lab with IBM’s help, and Wroclaw University of Economics in Poland, which is working with IBM on a postgraduate studies program in cyber security management.

Global developments in the smart grid have also opened job opportunities; in Ireland, a study by Trinity College Dublin’s Economic Social Research Institute anticipates up to 35 000 jobs created by the wind-energy sector alone across the country’s economy. Many of these jobs will require engineering training, in addition to technician-level and commercial positions. The study, commission by Siemens and the Irish Wind Energy Association, calls for Ireland to meet its wind-energy capacity job targets by 2020.

Fairchild Semiconductor is also conducting seminars globally to fill skills gaps (including 13 locations in Europe) on advancements in advanced power supply designs and concepts.


Meanwhile, there are plenty of engineering jobs in Europe, although most are in the larger countries.

Google has several openings at its European engineering headquarters in Zurich (about a third of them requiring Ph.Ds), including technical program managers, systems engineers, information security engineers, software test engineers, and systems engineers, as well as openings for software engineers at its facilities in London, Paris, and Denmark.

BAE Systems, the AirBus Group, the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere, and Automobili Lamborghini, Bosch, ABB, and Williams F1 (the Formula One racing team), are seeking engineers in a variety of disciplines in different countries. The European Patent Office also has several vacancies for engineers “with sufficient language skills” focusing on computers, electrical engineering, telecommunications, and medical technology in Munich, The Hague, and Berlin.

ARM Holdings also has several engineering openings in Cambridge, including software and applications engineers, 3D graphics engineers, DSP/media programming engineers, and Internet of Things system engineers. Mentor Graphics also has posted jobs in Budapest for verification solution engineers and embedded software development engineers.

ITC Global, a provider of satellite communications to remote areas, has expanded engineering resources at its operations in Aberdeen, Scotland. And Peregrine Semiconductor Corp. has opened a new lab facility and expanded its field application engineering resources in the U.K.

Cisco also needs senior security network engineers, design engineers, network security analysts, and design consultants, mostly in the U.K. The Financial Times has also reported that Apple has been hiring “aggressively” in Europe for special design and development projects. Qualcomm has a short list of requirements for technical professionals in its four offices in the U.K. (London, Farnborough, Cambridge, and Poole, with most of its technical activity based in Cambridge and Farnborough) that includes wireless systems engineers, near-field communications software engineers, and software engineers.  Xilinx also is looking for wireless/Ethernet design engineers for its Edinburgh facility, and design engineers for its Belfast-based Optical Network Solution Group. Hewlett-Packard said near the end of 2013 that it planned to cut 34 000 employees by the end of the year, but then announced in January that it expected to hire at least 150 engineers for its new 8 300 m2 Galway R&D facility when it’s completed in 2015. HP has reportedly doubled (to 80) the number of engineers at its Belfast research center.

Huawei, which opened a U.K. headquarters in June 2013, has grown its total R&D staff (including administrative as well as technical) across Europe to 7 700. Huawei said it doubled its investment in R&D in Europe between 2010 and 2013 and that it would double it again by 2018, adding 300 R&D positions in the U.K. by 2017. In January, Huawei signed an agreement with Imperial College London to invest in the school’s new Data Science Institute to develop new applications for smart cities, energy, and healthcare.

IT professionals are always in wide demand in Europe. According to Burning Glass, in 2013, there were 975 117 online job postings for IT-related jobs, an 8 percent increase over 2012. Most in demand were software engineers and software developers.

About Ron Schneiderman:

Ron Schneiderman is a contributing editor for It Is Innovation (i3) and is a regular contributor to IEEE Signal Processing Magazine. He's the author of seven books, including "Technology Lost — Hype and Reality in the Digital Age."