Let's Make Digital Skills the Fourth Literacy

As millions of graduates begin the task of finding a job or settling into a career in an extremely tight market this summer, prospective employers will be looking more closely than ever at the skills, training and educational backgrounds these graduates bring to the table. Having a diploma is a great accomplishment, but bringing the right skills -- especially skills in digital technology -- to a new job on day one may be just as important as that diploma for members of the Class of 2013.

Here we are in the midst of a digital revolution and as we look across the technology horizon, there is an astounding gap in the ability of the population to use the very digital technology that is transforming the way we live and work. Although we live in a highly connected world with 6 billion mobile phone subscribers, only 26 percent of the people in developing countries are Internet users, compared with 74 percent of the people in developed countries.

On the business side of the equation, it's been estimated that in Europe, the number of unfilled jobs in the Information & Communications Technologies (ICT) sector, alone, will reach 700,000 by 2015. The most obvious reason is a lack of skilled candidates. There's no way to fill such a critical void in the next two years or beyond unless we make digital technology training a top priority and attack it with all the resources we can muster.

The good news is that Millennial adults -- today's 18- to 30-year-olds -- really do understand the significance of education and training. This has been validated by the results of a survey released this week by Telefónica and the Financial Times of more than 12,000 Millennial adults in 27 countries. These leaders of tomorrow believe that improving education and making it more accessible is the best way to make a difference in the world; they also believe that for those who want to achieve personal success, technology should be their study of choice.

Closing that gap will require a fundamental change in the way we teach. Over the long run, the importance of digital education must be given the same degree of emphasis that we've traditionally placed on the core fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic. Digital skills, in fact, must become our "fourth literacy" if we are to keep pace with the transformation of business and society that digital technology is creating.

We must begin the process by looking at how we educate our children: we should strive to take education out of the classroom and into settings that engage and excite them. Students need more practical experience in such areas as creating web content and designing a web page. They need to look "under the hood" to deepen their understanding of what makes digital technology tick and stimulate their creativity.

The escalating pace of the digital revolution demands that we sharpen our focus on teaching people of every generation how to put digital technology to its best and most effective use. To accomplish that, technology must be accessible to more people.

The aspirations expressed by the milennials in our survey makes me optimistic that they have a genuine desire to build a better future for themselves and the communities in which they live. It also makes me hopeful that their enthusiasm for education -- technology education, in particular -- learning and technology will reinforce the obligation that those of us in business and government have to invest in new, innovative ways to deliver education and advance the technology proficiency of people everywhere.

Businesses need to play a key leadership role in this process and make substantial investments of both money and human resources in education and training. We can't leave it up to governments and NGOs to do this alone. By committing to this investment, businesses will play a more direct role in improving people's lives and reap the rewards of a better-educated society that promotes long-term prosperity and a stronger economy.

Telefónica is already committed to investing in programs that foster digital education and entrepreneurship, and I am calling on other global businesses to join us in this effort. Over the last 12 months, for example, we have been developing and executing such programs as Think Big School in which nearly 1,000 school children this year, alone, will be taught digital and entrepreneurial skills at company venues. We're also helping students across Europe take their first steps in coding and creating web content -- outside the classroom -- at Telefónica facilities; and we are partnering with Mozilla to create a hub that provides students with simple web-making tools and opportunities for gaining accreditation and recognition for their work.

We've also launched a division of Telefónica known as Wayra that has created a network of business accelerators that solicits proposals for digital startup companies from young entrepreneurs and invests in those that look the most promising. We've studied thousands of proposals to date, invested in about 250 businesses and established 13 academies that provide the founders of these companies office space at Telefónica facilities as well as finance, human resources and marketing support.

I urge business leaders everywhere to develop initiatives in their own companies that promote education innovation and entrepreneurship. The cumulative effect of these efforts will be to better prepare our children to face real-world challenges, boost employment, reduce poverty and elevate the standard of living of people throughout the world.

We're all in this together, and if we each do our part, we can realize the critical goal of making digital literacy a reality.