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Europe must work together to tackle skills shortages, says Jowell

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Tessa Jowell Employment Minister Tessa Jowell is calling for the establishment of a European-wide task force to look at the issue of IT skills shortages across the continent.

Speaking at a meeting of EU ministers in Luleå, Sweden, Ms Jowell outlined what she saw as the membership for the group: "This Skills Task Force should be a small dynamic core of business leaders, government representatives and academics meeting to examine the problem of skills shortages in Europe. This European-wide approach is vital if we are to ensure we have a sufficiently skilled workforce to meet the needs of the IT industry. We need to focus on skills and mobility, upon encouraging more women, older workers and unemployed people into ICT jobs, and on building clear and coherent qualifications and career paths."

Although Jowell stated that mobility was a key issue, there has been much controversy over the role of the IR35 tax ruling in encouraging British IT workers to seek work overseas. Last September the government unveiled plans for large-scale immigration to allow foreign IT workers, engineers and doctors to enter the UK to meet the growing skills shortage. This week, it was revealed that 18,257 foreign workers had come to the UK on the basis of their IT qualifications so far.

The government estimates that there will be 1.7 million vacancies in the IT sector by 2003, with 90% of new jobs in the UK will requiring basic IT and keyboard skills by 2006.

Commenting on the state of the UK employment market, Ms Jowell added: "The UK labour market combines typically European features, such as minimum standards at work, and US style flexibility. We have one of the highest employment rates in the EU, largely because we have more young people, women and older people in work than other member states."

She also identified a definite role for her department in working to address skills needs: "It is up to government to ensure that people have the necessary basic employability skills – literacy, numeracy, basic IT competence and work experience. The result is lots of people in work, and a fair labour market with work spread relatively evenly across the population."

Tessa Jowell's visit to Sweden follows her meeting with David Blunkett and a delegation from the Spanish government last month to discuss ways of alleviating skills shortages across Europe.

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