Pilot projects for digital hubs could help stimulate long-term sustainable employment in rural areas, said Maria Walsh, MEP for Midlands North West.
A member of the European Parliament’s Employment and Social Affairs Committee, Ms Walsh welcomed a pledge this
week from the European Commissioner-designate for Jobs, Nicolas Schmit, to support rural careers in the digital age with a range of measures.
In response to a written question from the Midlands North West MEP, Mr Schmit promised to support new ways to reduce the EU’s urban-rural divide, improve access to basic social infrastructure, access to good broadband and to focus on training and upskilling.
For rural communities, this could see the growth of digital hubs, backed by the EU and populated by private sector companies, perhaps not unlike the Ludgate model in Skibbereen. The EU has certainly seen a lot of positives come from its Smart Villages programme.
“From an Irish view, the question is how do you ensure that communities across the country are adequately served by investment in housing, broadband and other basic social infrastructure,” said Maria Walsh.
“Most MEPs talk about social change rather than just job numbers. In terms of rural Ireland, we can benefit hugely from SMEs locating in digital hubs. I hope to be part of a group looking at
the DNA of local towns and villages, where I hope to see pilot projects that will boost life in those communities. I could certainly see that work in the Midlands and North-West.”
On this topic, Ms Walsh brings useful experience in her pre-political work with Bank of Ireland’s Workbench in Limerick. Workbench connects entrepreneurs, branch, and the communities free dedicated space for co-working, meetings and events.
One early discovery with this project was that one size does not fit all. Cork and Galway have their own identity, so each community needs a hub delivering tailored responses to the challenges they face.
This responsive approach could well be the EU’s stance on promoting rural employment. Ms Walsh’s question to Jobs Commissioner-designate Schmit was asked in the context of her role as member of the European Parliament’s Employment and Social Affairs Committee.
He believes “digital technologies provide new ways to reduce the urban-rural divide” and that for people living in rural areas “online services and labour opportunities can reduce the risk of deprivation from certain services”.
“In future terms, training and upskilling will also become central in a strategy to support rural careers in the digital age. In the framework of the updated Skills Agenda for Europe, I will explore how individual learning accounts can ensure access to skills for all, including people living in rural areas,” said Mr Schmit.
The question posed by Ms Walsh read: “What will you do to secure, sustain and promote rural careers in the face of current changes and challenges and ensure that we have the right skills to safeguard rural communities and make them sustainable places for people to live and work?”
MEP Walsh welcomed the incoming commissioner’s commitment to rural jobs. Just over one quarter (28%) of the EU population lives
in a rural area, less than the share of those living in either towns or cities yet a higher proportion of the population living in rural areas face the risk of poverty or social exclusion when compared with urban areas.
She said: “It has been clear for some time that rural areas are facing specific challenges such as demographic change, productivity levels, labour supply, education and connectivity while also requiring a range of cross-cutting skills including digital skills and higher level leadership and management skills. I welcome the commissioner-designates pledge to take action on these areas and look forward to working with the Commission on new proposals aimed at training, upskilling and lifelong learning in rural areas.”
Under the EU’s Smart Villages programme, traditional and new networks and services are enhanced by means of digital, telecommunication technologies, innovations and the better use of knowledge, for the benefit of inhabitants and businesses.
EU president-elect, Ursula von der Leyen, has already made a commitment that the EU will strive to lead the transition to a healthy planet and a new digital world. She said she wants to lead a well-balanced, agile and modern Commission, taking bold action on climate change, with digital rural hubs having a valuable role to play in that vision.
“Our EU president-elect has set out her college in terms of the EU’s strategic movement forward. We
need to properly represent people in rural areas. The Commission wants to look at how can we make it better for people who want to grow up in rural areas.
“How do you offer better opportunities for people in rural Ireland? For my party, Fine Gael, one key question is how do we deliver rural the broadband that people need?
“My own focus is also on supporting the mental health and wellbeing of people living in rural towns and villages. These things are all interlinked.”