le 3 avril 2019
The urgent need for the French to acquire digital skills

Tribune originally published in French in Le Journal du Net on April 2, 2019.

The 30th anniversary of the worldwide web rang somewhat hollow when you consider that in 2019, one in five French people remains uncomfortable with digital technology. More worryingly, 66% of the French working population does not feel the urgent need to be trained in digital technology and 90% of our fellow citizens think it’s the responsibility of their employer to enhance their digital skills[1]. These two figures alone reveal one of the major risks to our long-term competitiveness: a lack of digital dexterity combined with part of the population’s lack of accountability faced with the challenges of the digital revolution.

However, let’s take care not to overwhelm or frighten those who have not yet mastered its workings. Digital has become a portmanteau word. Its rhetoric, too often abstract, can leave you feeling dizzy. What exactly is behind this digital imperative? What new skills need to be acquired? Because, although the labour market is sorely lacking in tech-savvy people, the economy does not need to turn every worker into a data scientist, an artificial intelligence specialist or a web developer.

As we now know, every sector and profession is targeted by digital technology. Can a surgeon ignore telemedicine? Can the operation of a connected machine remain obscure to the workers operating it? Can an HR consultant team up with a recruiting chatbot whose skills he does not understand? I don’t think so.

Against this backdrop, a digital knowledge base is an essential asset (being able to surf the Internet, create an email address, communicate via video-conferencing, use a tablet, etc.). But this means that you first have to create an appetite for digital culture, especially for the already employed generation. In this respect, agility and curiosity are prerequisites to the dive into digital technology. The digital locomotive is going full speed and everyone needs the means to get on board. The question is: who should be the stationmaster? Who should make this collective skill development effort possible? The State, the company or the employee?

Companies certainly have a major responsibility, but they must rethink their stance. Investing in the development of employees’ skills, and therefore their employability, may seem counter-intuitive in a context of changing employment patterns, where careers are increasingly less linear. To make certain that this responsibility is not perceived as a burden by employers, continuing training must become a natural process dispensed in more and more agile and collaborative formats.

This new training philosophy – more attractive, creative and personalised – helps to curtail the wait-and-see attitude that consists in expecting everything from one’s employer. As everything accelerates, employability must also become an individual concern and self-training a reflex. Corporate responsibility is a fact, but the most important thing will be the ability of individuals to regularly update their skills, including outside the company, using free resources which they can easily mobilise autonomously (exchange forums, MOOC, online tutorials, etc.).

The recent vocational training reform has sparked a paradigm shift regarding the autonomy issue with the Personal Training Account (CPF). The government wants to share responsibility between all the players involved, public and private, including the French population, which is encouraged to take charge of its own digital education. A year ago, our survey of 6,000 French employees on the main reasons for not using training confirmed this need for change: lack of personal organisation and awareness of rights were among the top three[2].

A lack of fluency with digital technology, especially for less qualified employees, can only widen existing gaps with those who have already taken the digital world onboard. Fighting programmed obsolescence in the digital skills of the French must become a prioritised collective challenge.

[1] See the randstad re.search survey on Les Français et le numérique : l’âge de la responsabilité individuelle est venu, March 2019

[2] Randstad survey on vocational training as part of Randstad Employer Brand Research 2018.