“I’m a digital skills preacher,” says Carmel Cachia, CEO and Chief Administrator of the eSkills Malta Foundation, the national coalition responsible for upping the island’s digital skills. And seeing as a major part of his role is ‘preaching’ the importance of being tech-savvy, it seems that Carmel’s career has been preparing him to do exactly that.
“I chose a career in ICT at a very young age, as I loved the fact that I was creating a system that would help people work better or more efficiently,” he shares. “In ICT you are always creating something for someone, and that propelled me to get more involved in industry. I have had many roles over my 35 years – and counting – in the ICT and digital sector. It has been a rollercoaster of an experience.”
This ‘rollercoaster experience’, as Carmel describes it, has included multiple career-defining moments. He pioneered and offered expertise in a variety of programmes and systems for companies such as Vodafone (Telecell back then) and Bank of Valletta, most notably introducing a retail banking system in the latter that the bank went on to utilise for more than 16 years. Another enduring aspect of Carmel’s legacy in the ICT sector, meanwhile, will be his pioneering work in the introduction of Java in Malta.
He is well-placed then, to lead Malta’s ICT industry into its next epoch through the unprecedented collaboration found at the core of the eSkills Malta Foundation. “When the foundation was launched in 2014, it was much-needed,” Carmel explains.
“It was born of the previous work of the eSkills Alliance, whereby around 20 people from different sectors joined forces in recognition of the importance of digital skills. It was about the adoption of many cultures, with the input of contrasting industries that all have the need for digital skills in common.
“That concept has now been refined in the eSkills Malta Foundation, which is also dependent on the collaboration of its founding members and its stakeholders, to drive the progress of Malta’s digital skills. Today, we are considered to be the best practice in Europe – no other country has this kind of fine-tuned eSkills organisation. I am hugely proud that we are held up as the standard.”
When established, the foundation was given a list of important mandates. Apart from advising Government and industry stakeholders regarding digital skills policy, Carmel and the coalition were tasked with setting in motion ICT educational reforms, boosting the capacity of the local ICT education industry, developing the ICT profession and supporting campaigns by other entities related to digital skills.
“Seeing as our mission is to offer a platform for Malta’s digital skills both locally and internationally, our work largely involves international networking, to promote our work overseas and to bring home new ideas and best practices,” continues Carmel.
“In fact, the foundation is also part of the Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition within the European Commission, as well as a European Technical Committee to advance competence standards for ICT professionals. Sharing ways to improve with the rest of Europe will help us achieve so much more than going it alone.”
Energising the local ICT education sector is also high on Carmel’s agenda. “Countries such as Finland were leaders in teaching digital skills from an early age, with the benefits of that approach visible in the high quality of their ICT sector generally. This has now flourished in most countries.”
“The ease and speed at which they apply changes in education has also helped them. We are likewise focused on expanding the curriculum in Malta, identifying areas that need improvement and making more industry experts available to students either in the classroom or through school visits into relevant companies.”
Through the foundation, Malta was also the first country in Europe to launch the National eSkills Strategy 2019-2021, following a recommendation by the EU Commission to all member states. This comprehensive publication acts as the strategic hub for policy and planning at a national level regarding digital skills, which stakeholders may use to form the basis of their own strategies.
“The National eSkills Strategy is agile and dynamic, yet it gives a solid structure for all the foundation’s efforts,” Carmel elaborates. “One important aspect of the strategy is ensuring that ICT professionals receive due recognition. Many individuals in the ICT sector agree that there should be a formal recognition of the profession in Malta, with national accreditation offering better transparency and accountability. We are working towards implementing this in collaboration with the Government and the local industry, using the European e-Competence Framework as a guide.”
Digital competence is vital if the country is to continue making technological progress, Carmel believes. “Technology is fast. We are not computers, so we must work with technology. Without digital skills, there is no technology – and that affects everything.”
With this in mind, the foundation has undertaken several studies such as the 2017 ICT Skills Audit, which is currently being reviewed to stay abreast of the current situation in Malta regarding advanced digital skills, while Carmel also keeps a firm eye on Malta’s European ranking.
“Malta is placed fifth out of the 28 EU member states in the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) for 2020, an index compiled by the European Commission that tracks digital performance across a number of categories,” he shares.
“It showed that 38 per cent of people in Malta have above basic digital skills, which outperforms the EU average of 33 per cent. On top of that we also have a higher-thanaverage percentage compared to the rest of the EU of ICT specialists and graduates. Yet, it also proved that there is still room for improvement in terms of basic digital and software skills within the population.”
And while there is still much to do in Malta to boost local digital competences, Carmel is equally focused on addressing the age-old issue of the gender gap in the tech industry. “This is an issue globally,” he explains.
“Unfortunately, the digital sector is still perceived as uninteresting to women and girls; for every five males in ICT, there is just one female. But we are focused on increasing the number of women in the sector, by forming strong focus groups and carrying out studies that will provide the basis of our guidelines in this area in the future.”
Meanwhile, 2020 presented new challenges for the foundation, as the COVID-19 pandemic shone
a sudden spotlight upon the importance of digital skills. “The demand for our assistance was tripled overnight, so we quickly migrated many of our in-person resources online,” Carmel shares.
“But the pandemic revealed the need for digital skills for so many, while pushing businesses to embrace technology such as e-commerce much faster than they had anticipated. This may also have a silver lining, however – the local digital sector has been given a major boost in recent months, and this may otherwise have taken years to achieve.” And Carmel expects the digital sector to continue moving at break-neck speed into 2021.
“Technology has changed a lot over the past five years – there’s Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, cybersecurity, the cloud, high-performance computing and new telecommunications innovations – and the future holds more of the same.”
“The eSkills Malta Foundation will be in the thick of things when it comes to improving the island’s digital competences in all these emerging technologies, achieving more digital transformations and upskilling different target groups. With collaboration, perseverance and innovation, we will achieve our objectives.”
This interview is part of a serialisation of 50 interviews carried out with Malta’s top CEOs, featured in the bumper edition of MaltaCEOs 2021 publication, which was recently released. Despite the many challenges of 2020, this is the largest edition to date.
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