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The employment mismatch is definitely going to get worse unless something is done soon. While E.U. countries spend billions on unemployment benefits and welfare, they are falling behind in the struggle to create a competitive version of the Information Society. According to a study commissioned by Microsoft, Western Europe will face a shortage of 1.7 million information-technology (IT) professionals by 2003. European firms provide only 25% of the E.U.'s information-technology needs, the European Commission says, and American companies gladly fill the gap.
But it isn't just on the new frontier that workers are missing; there aren't enough old-economy employees either. In France alone, as many as 50,000 construction jobs are unfilled, and there are an additional 20,000 or so open for truck drivers. Europe does not have enough accountants, welders or machine-tool operators. And as traditional production sectors become more service oriented, there is a crying need for people with advanced technical skills who can also talk intelligibly to clients. University enrollment has dropped to below replacement levels for highly qualified but unglamorous professions like chemical and metallurgical engineers. As a result, salaries have ballooned.
The outcome is a two-track society that leaves millions of poorly qualified unemployed standing in a cloud of dust while those in demand speed past. And for employers, these are especially demanding times. "Businesses have to understand what many employees already know--that in a dynamic economy and labor market, employees have the ball," says Mercedes Saddier-Chetochine, director of research and development for the Association for the Employment of Managers in Paris, an employment-consulting agency. Small business employers like Jean Lathouwers, president of software producer LSA Delta in eastern Belgium, are learning that lesson painfully. "We have to pay new people more than they're worth," he says, "and the last to come are the first to go. We're moving toward a real American situation, and we're not ready for that."
What should be done about it? For starters, Europe must turn out the kind of employees that the job market needs, in the quantities required. Belgian universities, for example, graduate some 2,000 computer scientists every year; the demand is closer to 6,000, says Karel Uyttendaele, director of Fabrimetal, an employers' federation that includes the IT sector. German universities have upped their capacity for IT students--from 13,000 two years ago to 40,000 today. But that is still not enough, argues Ullrich Heilmann, an economist with an Essen think tank. "The way it is now, you have professors standing in huge lecture halls talking to nobody about things nobody cares about, while IT courses are overfilled."
Hanne Shapiro, an IT learning expert at the Danish Institute of Technology, advocates a much closer partnership between schools and businesses to make sure that graduates emerge with skills employers need. But that alone is not enough, she adds. "You have to promote a lifelong willingness to keep learning. Unless you build that into the system, you're bound to never catch up."