Europe’s emerging digital divide

The ‘digital divide’ traditionally refers to the lack of Internet access that leaves less wealthy and rural regions across Europe without the benefits of digitalisation. But, as our recently published “AI Talent in the European Labour Market” report shows, a new digital divide is emerging between where skilled AI talent lives and works.

The report, based on insights from LinkedIn’s Economic Graph, finds that certain countries “are more effective at attracting AI workers due to the level of wages, the in-country presence of multinational corporations, or working conditions. Because their skills are in high demand, AI workers can choose to live and work in places based on their preferred living and working conditions.”

At an event we hosted to discuss the report in Brussels in January, Bulgarian MEP Eva Maydell said the ‘brain drain’ is not just an economic risk factor for countries in Eastern and Southern Europe. She said it is also a potential driver of anti-EU sentiment, as parents, grandmothers and grandfathers blame the EU for the West ‘stealing’ their progeny.

“It is so important to be able to analyse the insights LinkedIn can provide, particularly on East-West disparity, and question whether we are doing enough to ensure that the gap doesn’t continue to widen,” Maydell said.

Fabrizia Benini, head of unit for digital economy and skills in the European Commission’s DG Connect, echoed Maydell’s concerns, saying that in addition to the general, pressing need to up-skill and re-skill Europe’s workforce to seize the opportunities of the AI revolution, policymakers need to proactively help bridge the emerging East-West digital divide.

The new AI Talent report notes the natural tendency of AI talent to cluster in hubs, but points out that measures to even the distribution of AI talent across Europe can’t simply consist of setting up a technology hub or ensure the education systems are giving young people the skills that they need.

LinkedIn’s data does reveal that there’s an opportunity for Eastern countries to start gaining traction. Several Eastern European countries -- including Estonia and Slovenia -- have a large share of young AI workers relative to their proportion of total AI workers. Investing in these broader economic opportunities for young AI workers at home could help keep these younger workers from leaving.

Ensuring that self-sustaining AI talent pools are developed also outside the main economic hotspots in Western Europe will therefore require not just looking at skills and education, but that many different policy measures, from living conditions to wages, are developed in a coherent way to ensure highly mobile European AI talent is better distributed.

“AI is a great opportunity and a necessity for our workforce, to ensure economic growth and social wellbeing and enable the EU to compete globally in the race for talent,” said Dara Murphy, an expert in the cabinet of EU Commissioner Mariya Gabriel.

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