• Opinion
  • July 24, 2019
  • 10 minutes
  • 0

Austria launches world’s first blue collar accelerator

Opinion: Carpenters also need digital skills — so why aren’t we teaching them?

This article was written by Rainhard Fuchs, project manager at the Austrian Digitalisation Agency. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed. 

Digitalisation — a much-overused term, used to describe large-scale federal programs to small every-day solutions, which potentially transform the way we work. 

I think most of us who read Apolitical live and work in a bubble, where work only happens behind screens. But, what happens if you leave the building and look around you? The majority of jobs in the European countries are still traditional professions such as carpenters, builders, plumbers.

Who is going to build your apartment or house? A traditional construction company. 

Where do you go when you want to buy a wooden table? The usual carpenter around the corner.

Where do you stay overnight when you travel? Most likely a regular hotel. 

Innovating the innovation landscape

The people working in these traditional jobs are often overlooked in national digital programs and strategies, but they serve as the backbone of the economy, at least in Austria. 

99,96% of Austrian businesses fall under the SME-definition, i.e. a company with less than 250 employees. Furthermore, 86,99% of all companies employ 10 people or less.  

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This means that the vast majority of the Austrian economy is composed of companies, which do not have the proper human resources to research the newest, state-of-the-art technology since they work hard to keep their business running with, on average, around 4-5 employees. 

Yet, this is not only the case in Austria, but also in major parts of Europe if you compare the numbers

Austrian SMEs lack information and time, but most of all they lack digital skills, according to the leading study in the field. 36% of Austrian SMEs struggle with the “how to” of digital transformation and this is exactly where we, as the Austrian Digitalisation Agency, come in the picture. 

Developed and proven in the start-up world, we are testing something new in the European innovation landscape. Starting in 2019, we will run accelerator pilots with people in traditional jobs like carpenters, builders, plumbers etc. to empower Austrian businesses to seize opportunities in the digital world. 

The primary goal of the program is to empower people, not to teach them what they should do

If we don’t confront them now with the challenges — and opportunities — of the digital age, we fear that they might lose more ground in the future and they will be overtaken by big, international companies. 

Finding the right people

We pre-selected four job groups to focus on by interviewing experts, researching market capabilities and crunching data: Based on this we chose to focus on craftsmen (such as hairdressers, stonemasons, florists, fashion etc, which accounts for 8% of all Austrian businesses), construction (10%), tourism (14%+) and a general SME focus in Vorarlberg, one of Austria’s nine regional counties. 

This work has led us to develop several sub-categories and regional focus areas, which will lead to various outcomes over the coming months.

Hopefully the outcomes will all be positive, but we are happy to cut those loose ends that show low results. The following professional groups will be offered programs to expand their digital skills in late 2019:

  • Carpenters in Upper Austria
  • Builders across Austria
  • SMEs in general in Vorarlberg

Building the accelerator 

An accelerator can be built in several ways, and only a few prerequisites are given. 

However, one thing that is given is that participants will need to learn a lot in a short time. We opted for biweekly offline seminars in parallel with online webinars. Both will be run by practical experts, which means that there are no advisers and coaches who only have theoretical knowledge of the issues, but only practitioners who know how to live with the anxieties of running a business day by day. 

In the case of the online webinars, the sessions are between 15 and 60 minutes max, in order to retain the attention span of the participants. For the offline seminars, the lecturer needs to make it interactive, practical and each session will be assessed upfront. 

The groups are rather small to keep the atmosphere intimate and to ease the process of knowledge sharing within the group.

We put some research into finding similar programs around the globe, and came up short

Up to 15 businesses will be selected by an expert group and will be guided through 8–12 sessions. Each session will be based on a specific topic, such as Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), digital sales tools, backend programs to gain efficiency or current digital state-of-the-art tools in their respective job group.

The program is free. However, participants will need to assure that they will be present in at least 80% of the classes. Apart from the lecturer in the seminars/webinars, mentors will also be appointed who have already found a successful path in the digital world. These are experts with a proven track record, willing to share their insights with upcoming champions. 

Creating momentum

The primary goal of the program is to empower people, not to teach them what they should do. We would like to inspire people to think beyond the daily operations and transfer an open mind-set to constantly keep up with trends in their jobs. 

Only if we create the momentum for them to go on and engage on their own with the digital world, can we say we have lived up to our goal of making them digital champions in the future. 

To make this program a reality. It is essential that we collaborate with strong organisations in both the private and public sector. As a newly founded agency (we were founded in the autumn of 2018), we simply do not have the data to reach all SMEs in Austria (GDPR!) and seek partnerships on purpose since we see ourselves as a hub for digital activities in Austria.

Among the partners, you can find the chamber of commerce, business agencies, regional excellence clusters and private branch associations. 

Call for applications will run until late July, participants will be selected and notified in August, so that the program can start in September. An evaluation round in December will complete the life cycle of the accelerator, which will start again in 2020 with the former participants as potential mentors in an upcoming round of new programmes. 

A global first

We put some research into finding similar programs around the globe, and came up short.

Most accelerator programs target start-ups, but only one example showed up in the desk research, seeking to boost traditional SMEs. The FINLAB-Programme in Singapore and Thailand, however, can only rarely be compared with our pilots since it is targeting specifically the FinTech sector and assist with professional coaches, rather than other practitioners. 

Our goal is not this accelerator program from the Austrian public sector should become institutionalised, but rather, we see it as a test pilot that we will run until the program is self-sustaining and will be operated by the private sector. 

We see it as a huge business opportunity to help Austrian companies on their way to improve their digital fitness. It is our primary goal to pass the project on and focus on other projects after 2020. — Rainhard Fuchs

(Picture credit: Death to the stock photo)


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