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SME associations call for EC-funded IT training

At CeBIT, two European small-business associations have said more e-skills funding from the European Commission is needed for SMEs to remain competitive
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

European associations representing small and medium-sized enterprises have called for more European Commission-backed funding for SME employee IT training.

The European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (UEAPME) made the call at CeBIT on Wednesday. The association, which has 12 million member companies, had organised the event to remind European governments of the importance of e-skills training for smaller European businesses to remain competitive.

"ICT-skilled workers are scarce in many [European] countries today," said Andrea Benassi, secretary general for UEAPME. "The use of ICT in small businesses is key to success for those companies."

Benassi stressed that while there were private-sector-funded programmes, the funding of formal qualifications by proprietary companies should not be exploited by those companies to market their products.

The pan-European ICT and e-business network for SMEs (PIN-SME), which represents more than 50,000 European e-businesses, also emphasised the key role of ICT in driving small-business expansion.

Johan Steszgal, president of PIN-SME, said: "There is a low uptake of ICT in SMEs. Less than 50 percent of SME employees have formal ICT training."

A European Commission representative promised increased funding for small businesses, but said they should not rely solely on the Commission, and instead should take risks to grow, including attaining more e-skills.

"There will be an increased funding rate for SMEs," said Rudolf Strohmeier, who heads the cabinet office of information society and media commissioner Viviane Reding. "[But] SMEs must take more risks to support growth."

Strohmeier said there are around 23 million SMEs in Europe, employing more than 100 million people. He stressed the importance of these businesses in Europe, especially those involved in developing technology.

"SMEs are the primary source of new jobs, driving innovation and creativity," said Strohmeier. "This is important in the ICT sector. A large part of innovation used in ICT originates from SMEs."

However, Strohmeier said that Europe has not been as successful as the US in forming successful IT start-ups. Twenty-two percent of US companies currently operating were created after 1980, compared with only five percent in the EU.

"The capacity for European SMEs to grow and become innovative companies is a clear problem," said Strohmeier, who added that there are initiatives that have been or will be launched to support SMEs. These already include financial and innovation support, said Strohmeier.

A lack of long-term planning in public-sector purchasing, and a "relative retardation of the uptake of ICT by the public sector" has contributed to a lack of growth among small IT businesses, said Strohmeier, who added that the public sector should engage in more high-risk, high-value IT research and development.

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