Driving Digital Maturity

Driving Digital Maturity

Article by Carm Cachia published on iGaming Capital July 2020 Edition.

From its inception in 2014, the eSkills Malta Foundation has spearheaded developments in ICT policy and education, while also championing local tech talent both locally and overseas. Here, Rebecca Anastasi speaks to Chief Administrator Carmel Cachia, who outlines the entity’s vision to motivate greater digital
comptences, in the time of COVID-19 and beyond.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across Europe and infiltrated Malta, employees and school children – as well as processes and meetings – moved to the digital sphere, with millions across the continent adhering to health department instructions in the quest to limit the proliferation of the deadly virus.

Yet, the almost-wholesale shift to a tech-based society highlighted the glaring gaps in digital skills among different populations, and posed challenges to institutions that were left grappling with the consequences. Indeed, the corona virus crisis, according to eSkills Foundation Chief Administrator, Carmel Cachia, exposed the many deficiencies in digital maturity of organisations and critically affected business, commerce and education.

“Industry and education almost ground to a halt. But after a month or so, the digital ways of doing things had, all of sudden, sparked hope. And many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and education providers faced the challenge of using technology to survive. A lot of credit must be given to them. Were we prepared? No. Did we manage to transform? Somewhat. During COVID-19, everyone relied, almost totally on technology, and this meant that digital skills had to be raised to a higher bar,” Mr Cachia asserts.

The Foundation itself also had to adapt quickly, since many of its initiatives depended on some stakeholders who “were not digitally prepared,” the Chief Administrator explains. However, the entity stepped up its efforts, offering free training resources, career guidance and online courses to these target groups, as well as to SMEs across different sectors. And, this work is set to continue, with Mr Cachia explaining that e-learning modules, webinars and online activities are currently being prepared, underlining that the foundation is also open to “collaborations coming from any sector so long as it relates to increasing digital skills and competence efforts.”

For, this is, in fact, what the eSkills Malta Foundation was set up to do: acquire knowledge on the state of digital competences on the island, translate this information into reform within ICT education, expand training programmes, and to increase the IT professionalism of the tech sector.

Moreover, the entity, which was established in 2014 – in collaboration with the Ministry for Education and Employment, the Malta Information Technology Agency, the Malta Communications Authority, Malta Enterprise,​ the Malta Gaming Authority and the Malta Chamber of Commerce Enterprise and Industry – uses its remit to lobby the Government and leading industry players to effect changes to eSkills policies.

The foundation has its work cut out for it. According to the Malta ICT Skills Audit of 2017 – a research project conducted to ascertain the gaps and demand for digital skills, with respondents from a spate of Maltese ICT firms and related stakeholders – “there was an overwhelming consensus that the current tech pipeline in Malta is a depleting resource and this was impeding business development.”

Driving Digital Maturity

Moreover, 67 per cent of respondents’ demand was for entry- and competent-level ICT practitioners, with 31 per cent requiring expert levels, and “there was very strong consensus that industry certifications are an important ingredient for employees since these reflect specific sectorial needs,” Mr Cachia says.

Yet, the shortages identified by the study also, and “more prominently”, the Chief Administrator says, included deep-tech as well as soft skills, including interpersonal, verbal and written communication, together with project management, problem-solving, and innovation capabilities. A lack of strong work ethics was also registered. This is compounded when one considers the emerging technologies of Artificial Intelligence, Big Data Analytics, the Internet of Things, High Performance Computing, Next Generation Security and many
others. In fact, he says, “these have already emerged with the current technologies”.

“Since then, Malta has improved in some of these deficiencies, and the collective effort has reaped fruit when one considers the European Commission Digital Economy and Society Index for 2020,” Mr Cachia adds, saying that this year’s eSkills Demand and Supply Monitor (previously called the ICT Skills Audit) will give a
clearer picture of the current scenario. However, he expects “the usual suspects on the lack in quality and quantity” to still be present.

To address these challenges, the National eSkills Strategy, which runs from 2019 to 2021, recommends an increase in the type and range of tech training; a drive towards professional certification; the need to ensure a match between ICT courses and the needs of the sector; as well as proper career guidance for students in the IT profession and on the requirements of employers. Moreover, Mr Cachia says, there needs to be a “development of a coherent skills development strategy” and efforts directed towards helping “new entrants in the labour market transition from their studies to their professions.”

To these ends, the Foundation has implemented numerous initiatives, the Chief Administrator asserts. “It has provided study material for the relevant stakeholders so that these may be considered for their development plans. It also organises career guidance sessions to secondary and higher school students,
and industry visits to the ICT sector; it provides training and encourages the use of the European e-Competence Framework, while championing local and international digital initiatives such as EU Codeweek, CodesSprint, iChoose, PingFin, and the Million Dollar Idea,” he explains.

Driving Digital Maturity

Indeed, the adoption of the European e-Competence Framework (eCF), outlines the minimum requirements of competence (ie a threshold) in the workplace: it includes typical knowledge and skills examples that are not standardised but provided to support orientation and understanding. Although the eCF has been a standard since 2016, it should be thought of as a comprehensive set of guidelines to help the digital sector.

“The eCF creates a common language between European ICT professionals, and, together with the Framework of IT Professionalism, helps players in the ICT industry develop their skills transformation plans. It is also used by management and HR for recruitment and training, as well as by ICT professionals to check that they have the correct skills for specific roles. Beyond that, in terms of tertiary education and training, it is used by providers to align their content closer to industry,” Mr Cachia explains.

Moving on, Mr Cachia underlines that addressing the gender gap in eskills has also been a cornerstone of the
foundation’s work, and this has included the setting up of a focus group, known as Women in ICT. “We would like to make our digital economy contribution more effective for women. And, through this group, several projects were carried out, including guidelines on the best-practices of how to increase and retain women in ICT, aimed specifically at employers, followed up by a 2020 study on the local gender situation in the digital sector.”

Moreover, networking events were organised, and prominent women were appointed ‘tech ambassadors’ to encourage the take-up of courses, and the development of ICT skills for people of all genders. “The Government has set a commitment on this issue, and we are full supporters of this. Today, we are pleased to see so many organisations undertaking more efforts in addressing this issue, and taking the opportunity of making their organisations more diverse and stronger,” Mr Cachia says.

Looking ahead, while Malta has made great strides in raising the bar – even ranking fifth out of the 28 EU member states in the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) 2020 – work for the eSkills Malta Foundation continues. “Like many other countries, we have many important challenges to face. These include the further decrease in the digital divide – since around 44 per cent still lack basic digital skills – the upskilling of SMEs, national recognition of the IT profession, and engaging further with our European counterparts and the European Commission,” he explains.

To further these goals, an online digital platform is being planned in the future, and this will allow stakeholders to “access information, opportunities, funding, courses, events and many more initiatives” to increase digital skills and contribute, as well as further, Government policy in this area. For the eSkills Malta Foundation itself, the plan is to continuously strive to “increase our efforts and be of further effective service in the digital economy,” Mr Cachia concludes.