Needed: 'hands-on' training to bridge Europe's tech talent gap

Sponsored by: ATTRACT
29 Feb 2024 |

Panelists at Science|Business conference urge new, interdisciplinary models to train more tech innovators. ‘The EU is lagging behind the front-runners in this talent race,’ warns Commission official

Panellists at the Science|Business conference session on tech talent 13 February

Europe has a problem: its technology is advancing fast, but its supply of savvy innovators isn’t keeping pace. Remedying that will take a concerted effort by many: universities, industry, research infrastructure and government.

That’s the message from a panel discussion 13 February at a Science|Business conference in Brussels marking the 40th anniversary of the European Union’s Framework Programme for research and innovation.

    The scale of the talent problem was outlined in a panel discussion on training future tech innovators. Said Anna Panagopoulou, director for the European research area and innovation at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation: “We are talking here today about two million researchers in Europe, which is about 1.6% of the total labour in the EU". That figure, while significant, pales in comparison to China’s 73% increase in research talent since 2011, dwarfing Europe’s 14% growth and even outpacing the US’s 26%. Moreover, researcher density fluctuates dramatically across EU member states, from as high as 2% to as low as 0.4%. And 11 of the 27 member states are experiencing a net loss of talent, with more researchers leaving home than returning.

    But the problem isn’t just in the numbers: it’s also in the specific skills acquired by tech talent, both young and old. Antoaneta Angelova-Krasteva, director for innovation, digital education and international cooperation at the Commission’s Directorate-General for Education and Culture, emphasised the necessity of fostering lifelong learning and skill enhancement, noting that "the European Year of Skills is trying to raise awareness... and make sure that lifelong learning becomes part of our DNA". This approach is vital in ensuring Europe’s competitive edge in a rapidly evolving global landscape dominated by technological advances.

    Both Commission officials underscored the urgent need for a strategic overhaul of Europe’s approach to cultivating a robust, innovative talent pool capable of driving the continent’s technological future forward.

    A call for holistic education

    One solution discussed by the panel would be taking a holistic educational approach that breaks free from the confines of traditional STEM education, weaving in practical experience and soft skills vital for groundbreaking innovation. This was championed by Ilkka Niemelä, president of Finland’s Aalto University, and Chiara Giovenzana, a biotech entrepreneur and founder of Italian consultant Binella175.

    "It's not just about having deep technological understanding,” said Niemelä. “Innovations are for users, requiring knowledge of business models and user expectations.” At Aalto, the university has been pioneering a teaching approach called “design thinking”, making students more aware of the multi-disciplinary, creative approach needed to succeed in the tech industry. For that success, he said, “design thinking, creativity, and an entrepreneurial mindset are essential".

    Echoing this sentiment, Giovenzana stressed the transformative power of mentorship and immersion in an innovative ecosystem. "Being in an ecosystem that exposes you to different problems and people hands-on is crucial. For me, mentors were key".  Such networks help people develop the problem-solving and proactive attitudes needed in the modern workforce.

    The role of research infrastructures

    One such successful ecosystem was described by Pablo Garcia Tello, section head for development of new projects and initiatives at the EU office of high-energy physics lab CERN. There in Geneva, CERN’s IDEA Square training facility brings students into contact with emerging technologies – in imaging, detection, scanning and related fields – and gives them hands-on experience in developing technologies for market.

    Said Tello: "We engage around 1,400 young students annually at IDEA Square, focusing on innovation and measuring their development. By allowing students to generate their own projects, we foster ownership and breakthrough thinking, essential for retaining talent and nurturing creativity". This approach, partly funded by the EU’s ATTRACT project,  not only equips students with research skills but also with the ability to manage projects, make decisions within a team, and think innovatively — skills that are increasingly demanded by the private sector.

    The example shows how research infrastructures can be fundamental pillars within the innovation ecosystem, bridging the gap between academic exploration and industrial application. This synergy is vital for developing a workforce with a nuanced understanding of market intricacies and the competence to navigate technological complexities. Said Tello: "Any research infrastructure in Europe is training hundreds of researchers, engineers, chemists... We are, I will call it for the moment, the hidden contributor".

    Exposing students to such technologies is vital, agreed Aalto’s Niemelä. "Why don't we have projects with lower (technology-readiness) levels where you know you have two things: you develop the technology but also you train the people to bring it forward?"

    Getting to a solution  - fast

    Given the mounting intensity of global tech competition, Europe needs to act quickly, panelists said. At present, said Angelova-Krasteva, “the EU is lagging behind the front runners in this talent race".

    In facing these challenges, panelists said, it is clear that a fragmented approach will not suffice. Europe's path forward requires a holistic, integrated strategy that embraces the complexity of the innovation ecosystem. This requires interdisciplinary education, strengthening industry-academia collaboration, investing in cutting-edge research infrastructures, and championing entrepreneurial education. Audience members agreed on the importance of cross-sector collaboration. Said José Carlos Caldeira, board member of Portuguese R&D organisation INESC TEC: “Diversity in thought and expertise is key to innovation.”


    The "Hot Talent: How to Train Future Tech Innovators" session produced a series of recommendations from various of the panelists – all aiming for a collaborative effort to foster an innovation-driven ecosystem:

    • Foster interdisciplinary education: Blend technical knowledge with soft skills such as creativity, teamwork, and an entrepreneurial mindset to prepare students for the multifaceted challenges of innovation.
    • Enhance collaboration among industry, academia and research infrastructures: Strengthen partnerships between the business sector and educational institutions to ensure curricula are aligned with real-world needs and technological advancements.
    • Promote entrepreneurial education: Encourage initiatives that merge entrepreneurial education with innovation, fostering a culture of ownership and creativity.
    • Invest in research infrastructures: Utilise research infrastructures as dynamic poles within the innovation ecosystem to bridge academic research with industrial application including training of young talent.
    • Implement systemic changes across the innovation landscape: Advocate for policies and institutional measures that are both creative and grounded, addressing the evolving challenges of innovation and technological development.
    • Ensure a unified approach to talent and technological development: Recognise and act upon the intrinsic link between nurturing talent and advancing technology to maintain Europe’s competitive edge in the global innovation arena.

    The panel was supported by the ATTRACT project, an EU-funded tech-development initiative led by CERN. This report was prepared by Ricardo Miguéis, head of the INESC TEC  Brussels office, with the assistance of Science|Business.

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