The ICT sector in Europe is facing a massive skills shortage, with up to 700,000 unfilled jobs and declining competitiveness, the European Commission has warned.

While the number of digital jobs is growing by 3 percent each year – in spite of the economic downturn – the number of new ICT graduates and other skilled ICT workers is shrinking, according to EC figures.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes warned that ICT companies operating in Europe need to be able to recruit the right people or they will move their operations elsewhere.

“The digital skills gap is growing, like our unemployment queues. We need joint action between governments and companies to bridge that gap,” said Kroes.

“The ICT sector is the new backbone of Europe's economy, and together we can prevent a lost generation and an uncompetitive Europe.”

The Commission aims to tackle the problem by collecting pledges from companies, social partners and education players to provide new jobs, internships, training places, start-up funding and free online university courses.

Companies such as Nokia, Telefónica, SAP, Cisco, HP, Alcatel-Lucent, Randstad, ENI, Telenor Group, ARM, as well as the CIO community, CEPIS (Council of European Professional Informatics Societies) and Digital Europe have already committed to act.

The Commission also plans to launch a Grand Coalition for Digital Skills and Jobs at a major pledging conference on 4-5 March. The conference is open to all who want to actively support the cause.

“We seek active collaboration in areas like industry-led training, assisting labour mobility, certifying skills, improving school and university curricula, raising awareness, and creating an entrepreneur friendly environment for start-ups,” the EC said in a statement.

“One concrete area for action could be training vouchers. Successful German and Spanish voucher-based training models provided jobs for 60-70% of the 20,000 participants and we should seek to replicate and scale up this idea on a European scale.”

Commenting on the launch of the Grand Coalition, Telefónica COO José María Álvarez-Pallete said that technology companies can and should play a part in addressing issues in the society in which they operate.

“The transition to a knowledge-based and innovation-driven economy is accelerating, but skills shortages and gaps are negatively impacting growth, competitiveness, innovation and employment in Europe,” he said.

“We believe that Commissioner Neelie Kroes' Grand Coalition for Digital Jobs is a very helpful catalyst to help European recovery. The private sector has a critical role to play and we will be working actively to build a real momentum across Europe.”

Another key element of the Coalition is mobility assistance, ranging from English language learning support to facilitating mobility for unemployed people and standardised certification of skills.

The Commission is also launching Startup Europe, a single platform for tools and programmes supporting people wanting to set up and grow web start-ups in Europe, in recognition of the potential for job creation.