Behind the Scenes of DigiAdvance: Interview with Professor Marlene Amorim (University of Aveiro)

Welcome to our series of 1:1 interviews with the team behind DigiAdvance. Today we are lucky to be joined by Professor Marlene Amorim, of the University of Aveiro, to dive into the new survey that we’ve just launched, to help us understand the digital skills gaps experienced by European SMEs and how we can build our 40+ courses to address them (if you’d like to skip to participating in this survey, you do so here.)

This survey is part of the research being conducted by the University of Aveiro (UA), together with the University Autonoma of Barcelona (UAB) and Dublin City University (DCU), to discern what would be required to improve the advanced digital skills of SME employees in Europe. The survey itself has been put together by the University of Aveiro’s Labour Observatory team (which we will find out more about below!).

Professor Marlene Amorim is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics, Management, Industrial Engineering and Tourism, at the University of Aveiro (Portugal). She holds a PhD in Management from IESE Business School in Barcelona (Spain). She has a degree in Economics from the University of Porto and a Master’s in Science, Technology, and Innovation Management from the University of Aveiro. She is also a Researcher in the Governance, Competitiveness and Public Policy Research Unit, where she coordinates the Competitiveness, Innovation and Sustainability Research Line. In recent years, she has carried out applied work to promote the development of new services and social innovation, both by joining international research networks and by implementing training actions aimed at citizens and institutions (Social Innovation Workshops). 

Hello, thank you for joining us today! We’ll start with some background context for our readers. According to the European Commission (EC), 77% of EU companies report difficulties in recruiting workers with the necessary skills; Professor Amorim, could you enlighten us on the upskilling and reskilling situation in Europe?

The statistic you mentioned, where 77% of EU companies report difficulties in recruiting workers with the necessary skills, highlights a pressing issue in the European labour market. To address this skills gap and prepare the workforce for the evolving employment landscape, upskilling and reskilling have become key priorities in the region. Many industries in Europe are experiencing rapid change due to digitalisation, automation, and other technological advances. This has led to an increased emphasis on sector-specific training programmes that address the unique skills needs of different industries. Collaboration between business and education is growing. Companies are partnering with universities, vocational schools, and online learning platforms to develop customised training programmes that match the skills needed in the labour market. Continued cooperation between governments, businesses, educational institutions, and workers will be essential to meet the skills needs of the future and improve the competitiveness of Europe’s workforce.

Thank you! Currently, more than three quarters of companies in the EU say they have difficulties finding workers with the necessary skills, while only 37% of adults undertake training on a regular basis. Could you explain how DigiAdvance aims to improve this?

The DigiAdvance project will address these growing issues through the provision of low-cost, demand-driven, tailored training in key digital technologies for SME owners, managers, and employees.

The objectives of the project are to:

  • Develop the skills and confidence of existing SME employees related to specific aspects of digital technologies to foster talent pipelines within enterprises;
  • Provide opportunities for job seekers to upskill or reskill in specific aspects of digital technologies to enhance the talent pool for SME recruitment;
  • Empower business leaders to drive innovation and investment in digital technologies by improving their understanding and their awareness of such technologies;
  • Identify current and future trends and needs in the SME sector with respect to digital skills;
  • Create opportunities for knowledge-transfer and networking across both European HEIs and Industry.

The labour Observatory team at UA has been working on a survey to gather insights on employees’ competencies and training preferences. Could you explain how this was designed?

The labour Observatory engages a multidisciplinary team that has been focused on developing methods to diagnose the needs for education and training at a regional level to meet the demands of digital transition. The work involved several rounds of data collection and analysis, using surveys and interviews in the first stage of the research work. In a latter phase, the team developed tools to analyse data from online job ads and extract information about the most demanded competencies, aligning them with the European Classification of Occupations, Skills and Competences (ESCO) database.

For the extraction of data related to online job adverts, specific algorithms were developed to support the extraction of online sources and the association of existing job opportunities with a valid match in the list of professions described in ESCO. The algorithms used to support data collection and analysis were developed within the framework of the Employment Observatory, developed within a previous project, the Aveiro STEAM City project – an Innovative Urban Action for the Aveiro region. A data analysis model was developed and tested. This model uses a mixture of Machine Learning and Markov Transition Matrices to make its decision and return the best possible decision. Using the ELK (Elasticsearch, Logstash, Kibana) Stack it is also possible to create different visualisations and combine them into dashboards that allow easy access to all the information resulting from the search.

"In a rapidly evolving technological landscape, adaptability and a commitment to learning are key. By following these recommendations, workers can not only keep up with technological advances, but also thrive in a changing job market."
Professor Marlene Amorim
University of Aveiro

How will DigiAdvance use the results of this survey in the project? How will the data inform the development of its courses?

The study will help with the selection and creation of distinctive and customised solutions for SMEs, both in terms of content and design. These offerings will be made flexible and easily available, and they will be tailored to address the challenges that SMEs and their employees confront. In addition, it is anticipated that this approach will involve a prioritisation agenda to guarantee that the requirements of SMEs are satisfied in a methodical manner. 

One of the questions in the survey is about transversal skills (soft skills); could you explain the impact of these skills in the future of work?  

Soft skills are essential for navigating the changing landscape of work. As automation and AI technologies continue to advance, these skills will differentiate humans from machines and make individuals more valuable in the workplace. Employers and employees alike must invest in developing and honing these skills to ensure a successful future in the ever-evolving world of work. 

We are seeing technologies progress at the speed of the light right now. However, uptake for employees is moving at a different pace, taking both time and effort. What would be your recommendation be for workers to adapt to the current situation? 

Adapting to the rapid pace of technological change can be challenging, but it’s essential for workers to remain relevant and competitive in the job market. In a rapidly evolving technological landscape, adaptability and a commitment to learning are key. By following these recommendations, workers can not only keep up with technological advances, but also thrive in a changing job market. 

The EU has been working towards the digitalisation of European SMEs for a long time. What do you consider are the main challenges that SMEs must embrace to capitalise on this transformation? 

The digitalisation of European SMEs is a crucial initiative to improve their competitiveness and sustainability. However, there is a key challenge that SMEs need to address to fully benefit from this digital transformation. Many SMEs lack the necessary in-house digital expertise. They need to either upskill their existing workforce or hire individuals with the necessary digital skills. Collaboration with local educational institutions, mentoring programmes or partnerships with digital experts can help bridge the skills gap. 

The EU aims to have 20 million ICT specialists employed by 2030. What are your predictions regarding digital skills of European employees in 2030? What trends do you expect to see?  

Predicting the digital skills of Europe’s workforce in 2030 is fraught with uncertainty, but some trends and expectations can be identified based on current trajectories and EU targets. The EU’s target of 20 million ICT professionals by 2030 is likely to lead to a significant increase in the digital skills of the European workforce. This initiative is expected to increase digital literacy, coding skills and expertise in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, data analytics and cyber security. Workers in different sectors will need to be comfortable using digital tools, navigating online platforms and understanding data. 

Ready to have your say? Take part in our 10-minute survey today and shape the future of our courses. Participate in the survey here.