Not whom they expected: SAP's McDermott opens Cebit

Heads of state and heads of enterprise see a need for more students of engineering and math

It was Léo Apotheker whose name appeared on the invitation to the opening ceremony of the Cebit trade show -- but his successor, co-CEO Bill McDermott, appeared on stage.

"Every year you have to reinvent yourself just to survive," McDermott said, ostensibly speaking about the IT industry in general, but perhaps also alluding to the recent changes in his company's top management. Apotheker resigned as CEO last month after the company's board signaled that it would not be renewing his contract.

McDermott shared the stage with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and other local dignitaries.

He set out three priorities for collaboration between government and industry in order to create a more sustainable world. First, business, research and government must work hand in hand to set a clear road map for the future. Second, government must support innovation by providing a fiscal boost for research. And third, new talent must be trained.

"We must encourage young people to study science, engineering and mathematics," McDermott said.

That was a sentiment echoed by Merkel.

"We are going to invest in education and training," she said. "We have to have the right people, the right graduates from schools."

Given a choice, though, Germany's young people seem uninterested in technical subjects, which they consider too hard.

"It's also important that we trigger more enthusiasm for engineering and mathematics. These are still seen as difficult -- but from my own experience, I can say that it's not all that bad," Merkel said.

If government and industry do not act to make such technical subjects more attractive -- notably by improving employment prospects for graduates -- then the IT industry risks losing a generation of engineers.

"There is a major demographic change ahead of us. If people don't feel it's worth going into engineering and mathematics, that there's no job waiting afterwards, will take years to make changes," she warned.

Spain, at least, has been making efforts to do that, said Zapatero. In the past five years, the country has invested more than €8 billion (US$11 billion) in IT and communications.

The result, he said, is that Spain's IT sector has grown at 11 percent annually in recent years, resisting the blows of the economic crisis, and now employs more than 400,000 people.

As a result of the investment program, fixed-line broadband Internet access is now available to 90 percent of the Spanish population, with Spanish subscribers seeing the fastest average connection speeds of any European country, he said.

Mobile broadband is also widespread. "Eight million Spaniards benefitting from extensions in mobile Internet coverage," Zapatero said.

That's something Merkel said Germany could do better.

"In rural areas there is still much to be done. I'm not talking about watching movies on mobiles, but simple things like making phone calls," she said, prompting applause from the audience.

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