Stelios Rallis, Secretary General for Digital Policy at the Ministry of Digital Policy, Telecommunications and Media, gave an interview to Hara Tzanavara, for the “Efimerida ton Sintakton” Greek daily newspaper, speaking about the ministry’s initiatives to enhance the digital skills of students and young scientinsts, but also the general population, in an effort to tackle Greece’s digital divide.

Mr Rallis, there is the perception that new changes in technology will bring about the end of work. What is your opinion?

I think that these views are probably extreme. We do however understand that changes introduced by technology might cause unease to the citizens. We know that 65% of children who are currently in school will be employed in the future in jobs that today do not exist. We also know that in the future the use of artificial intelligence will be widespread; and we have come to terms with that. However, to go from that to predicting the end of work is a huge, unjustified leap of inference.

We are preparing ourselves for these changes. It is a key priority in our digital policy agenda to provide everyone with the qualifications that will allow them to successfully cope with these changes. This is achieved through the acquisition of digital skills which offer great opportunities to those who will first develop and master them.

What does the term “digital skills” entail and why have they become indispensable?

Our future prosperity could be founded on the digital sector. With the appropriate digital policies, it could contribute to Greece’s economic recovery after exiting the memoranda. In order to achieve that, we need to understand that digital skills are just as important as up-to-date digital infrastructures. These are both prerequisites for an equitable digital development.

We in the Ministry of Digital Policy, Telecommunications and Media put our efforts into laying the digital foundations for the country regarding both infrastructure -fast internet connections for everyone- as well as skills training programmes for all. It hardly makes any sense having state-of-the-art infrastructures if citizens are not able to profit from it. It’s like having the best motorway while people don’t know how to drive… We need digital skills because they are fundamental for social and financial development. Training in digital skills combined with modern digital infrastructure is the cornerstone of a successful digital transformation of Greek society and economy.

What is the current digital skills landscape in Europe?

There is a broad consensus in Europe regarding the positive impact of digital skills on stimulating competitiveness, productivity, innovation and employability. However, Europe -including Greece- faces the paradox of high unemployment rates combined with a shortage of employees with competitive digital skills.

That paradox could be tackled through various initiatives. One of these is the European Commission’s proposal for the creation of the first ever Digital Europe programme, which includes the investment of €9.2 billion in order to align the next long-term EU budget 2021-2027 with increasing digital challenges. Of these, €700 million will be invested in the area of digital skills, to ensure that the current and future workforce will have the opportunity to easily acquire advanced digital skills through long-and short-term training courses and on-the-job traineeships, regardless of their Member State of residence.

What are the steps that Greece takes regarding the bridging of digital divide?

In our country the acknowledged difficulty that part of the labour force faces in accessing the new opportunities that digital transformation of economy offers, led the General Secretariat of Digital Policy, in collaboration with the Union of Hellenic Chambers of Commerce, to design a project aiming at providing and/or upgrading the digital skills of the employees of private enterprises. This includes defining educational needs and offering consulting guidance, implementing professional training programmes as well as certifying the knowledge and skills of 15.000 employees who work in private sector enterprises, including those who are self employed or work on a seasonal basis, regardless their working sector. The details regarding this specific project and call for proposals are included in the Operational Programme Competitiveness, Entrepreneurship and Innovation 2014-2020 (EPAnEK), one of the five sectoral operational programmes of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (the new NSRF) for the period 2014-2020.

We thus contribute to the improvement of Greece’s score in the European Ranking regarding digital skills. You know very well that in recent years Greece is in the lowest ranking due to the lack of cohesive policy on this issue. This has changed for the better. Since 2016, the “National Digital Strategy 2016-2021” has provided us with a road map of the steps necessary for Greece to be incorporated in the global digital map with a positive five-year outlook. Especially with regards to digital skills training and generational digital divide, we are in need of systemic changes. And we move in that direction.

Despite high unemployment rates, there is a shortage of employees with competitive digital skills. Taking that into account, have you planned any interventions in terms of developing digital skills which will manage to connect education with the labour market?

We are planning actions towards two directions. The first one is “Training and Certification provided to university students and young scientists for acquiring skills regarding application development and computer networks and systems management”, which provides students and young scientists with access to training opportunities. The project, with a budget of €13 million, aims to offer training and certification for up to 10.000 university graduands, postgraduate students, doctoral candidates and Hellenic Open University students in the STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), enhancing their skills in programming and operating systems (Development, Operations, Devops). By acquiring the above mentioned skills they will become more competitive and will support the development of digital economy based on innovation.

The project was designed and will be implemented by the General Secretariat of Digital Policy in collaboration with Information Society S.A., which will cooperate with about 20.000 Greek public and private training and education institutions. An electronic platform will be developed, where any potential student will be able to locate and choose the subject of their interest, the respective training institutions as well as the corresponding exam providing internationally verified certification. Each institution will receive a financing of €1,000 per trainee, valid only for students with successful exam results.

Are you planning any actions for digital skills training for the general population?

The projects are aimed at all citizens, with a special emphasis on women. The General Secretariat of Digital Policy in collaboration with the Hellenic Open University has designed the project “Creation and supplying of large-scale distance learning training programmes on digital skills and implementation of informative and training actions throughout Greece”. The purpose of this project is to develop and provide large-scale distance learning programmes on digital skills and carry out informative and training actions throughout Greece, and it has a €5 million budget.

It is aimed at a vast and geographically distributed population across the country, capitalising on the Open University’s expertise on distance learning issues. The educational material created will help enhance the digital skills of 250.000 citizens; there is also provision for the creation of a depository for open training resources, as well as for the creation of a collection and evaluation system for national data regarding digital skills.

The actions will not be restricted to distance learning programmes, but also to in situ training laboratories and relevant events across the country, with special emphasis on small urban areas and regions that have recently gained access to broadband networks, since the demand for information is higher there. In these areas we are going to create small PC workshops, which will remain in the Municipality so that the citizens from less privileged areas can also have access to the distance learning programmes.

Translation: Dimitra Panagiotopoulou & Nefeli Mosaidi