Over 100 participants flocked to Sofitel Brussels Europe for an expert discussion about upskilling the SME workforce for the Digital Age

The situation is dire. “A thunderstorm is going to hit us soon. 40% of our labour force will be automated by 2055”, remarked Bo Sejer Frandsen, head of the Danish IT Forum and Vice-President of DIGITAL SME.  “We urgently need a European solution for the Digital Skills Gap”. The SKILLS FOR SMEs conference marked the final stage of a European Commission and EASME-led initiative to analyse and support SMEs’ skills development, especially in the fields of Big Data, Internet of Things and Cybersecurity. The aim was to contribute to strengthening SMEs’ workforce adaptability and capacity for the short to medium term. 

Although the US and China dominate R&D in the aforementioned fields, Europe has the potential to re-emerge as a strong innovator—if it manages to activate and “digitally upskill” its strong SME industry. High-level speakers from all across Europe addressed the audience with their perspectives of reaching this goal. 

Capgemini's Niels van der Linden during his opening speech.

A plethora of speakers from across Europe share their expertise

After brief opening remarks by Capgemini’s Niels van der Linden, first keynote speaker Slawomir Tokarski, Director of Innovation and Advanced Manufacturing at the European Commission’s DG GROW, introduced his department’s perspective: “We need an SME-centric approach.” His department supports access for SMEs to relevant funding schemes so their own limited resources can be maximised. In regards to cybersecurity, Tokarski stressed that SMEs often overlook the threats and their devastating impacts: “60% of SMEs that suffer a cyberattack do not recover. They have to shut down.”

The first session saw representatives from cities and regions across the EU divulge their priorities in increasing digital literacy for SMEs. Sanna-Mari Jäntti, Director of Strategic Projects in the city of Helsinki, highlighted the growing importance of cities as main customers for SMEs in the future: “Cities are enablers of SME growth”. She also stressed the importance of high-quality comprehensive education for every child. “We don’t want to have the best best schools, we want to have the best worst schools.” A larger regional perspective was introduced by Dr Petra Püchner, European Commissioner of the German province Baden-Württemberg and head of the Steinbeis Europe Center. Dr Püchner mentioned the success of state-funded digital hubs as spaces for learning and SME network-building, and funding for SMEs. She stressed, however, that Baden-Württemberg can’t do it alone, and neither can Germany: “We need Europe. We need to work together!”

First panel (left to right): Nineta Polemi, Marco Bianchini, Nina Olesen, Gerd Müller, George Sharkov

Cyber Resilience, Upskilling and Education for SMEs

After a short coffee break overlooking the picturesque aula of Sofitel Brussels Europe, co-organizer Niels van der Linden, Principal Consultant at Capgemini, presented a summary of the two-year project’s findings: The comprehensive study investigates hurdles for SMEs in upskiling and proposes a toolbox which defines measures at different levels aiming to allow SMEs to upgrade their skills.


The first session and its keynotes were followed by three high-level panels focusing on the topics of cyber resilience, upskilling and education. In the first panel, speakers from the European Cyber Security Organization, the OECD, the European Commission, and the Bulgarian Ministry of Defense discussed a vision and strategy to increase skills development and cyber resilience of SMEs. Ms Nineta Polemi from the Commission’s DG CONNECT emphasized the importance of creating an atmosphere of awareness for cyber threats: “We need to support SMEs in developing a comprehensive cybersecurity philosophy!” Marco Bianchini, who analyses policy at the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities, added the importance of knowledge-sharing and access to data for SMEs: “Only 10% of SMEs use a source of big data.”

The second panel (left to right): Dave Feenan, Morena Diazzi, Sanna-Mari Jäntti, Paul Gisby. Moderator: Sebastiano Toffaletti (left)

“There are only two types of SMEs: those who are digital, and those who will become digital”

The second panel, moderated by DIGITAL SME Secretary-General Sebastiano Toffaletti, focused on SME upskilling. Introducing the topic, Mr Toffaletti cited Executive Vice President-Designate Margarethe Vestager: “There are only two types of SMEs: those who are digital and those who will become digital.” A lively discussion among panelists with several questions from the audience ensued. The topic of knowledge-sharing and enabling networks recurred several times during the speakers’ remarks; Morena Diazzi from the Italian Emilia Romagna region and Dave Feenan from Skillnet Ireland related their successful experiments with clusters and digital hubs to the conference attendees. 

Finally, the third panel focused on the important issue of tailoring education and training to SMEs’ needs. Panelists from academia and SMEs discussed the lack of formal and comprehensive digital skills training in Europe—highlighted by the fact that only half of a room full of people working in digital policy raised their hands when asked whether they had received training in digital skills in school. Talking about MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses), Timo Kos from the Technical University of Delft said “We decided to do them to reach scale. However, for that to happen on a wider scale we also need to retrain the teachers to use new tools to teach“. Another remark that received acclaim from co-panelists and audience alike came from Tanya Suarez, PhD, entrepreneur and board member of AIOTI: “We need to develop a system that recognizes competences beyond certified skills from institutions.”

Third panel (left to right): Tanya Suarez, Giulio Soro, Ernestina Menasalvas, Timo Kos.

Whether through Education or Industry: The Solution must be European

The conclusion of a tightly packed full-day programme was delivered by André Richier from the European Commission’s DG GROW and Nineta Polemi, who summarised key actions to be taken by the European Institutions. “Throughout Europe, we need a new type of broad consortia that deal with the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises in the digital age, and we need these collaborations on national, regional, and local levels. Industry should also play a much bigger role in bridging the digital skills gap.

The SKILLS FOR SMEs conference addressed some key findings and European best practices for increasing the level of digital skills on the continent. DIGITAL SME is proud to have hosted such an important event with the help of our partners from Capgemini and Technopolis, and the friendly support by EASME and the COSME initiative. The fact that many attendees came from their regional contexts specifically for this event shows that there is an awareness across regions that the solution to boosting skills for SMEs must be sought on a European level.

Concluding remarks were delivered by Nineta Polemi and André Richier

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