MSLETB Director of Further Education and Training Peter Egan speaks to the Irish Times about how companies investing in the Irish economy need to prioritise further education and training on their agenda!
“The Government is investing heavily in its rollout to ensure that the skills of the existing workforce remain agile and responsive in an economic climate that is rapidly changing. Education and Training Boards (ETBs) have training advisers and employment engagement officers who will work with companies to identify training needs and skills gaps and help to plug them, often with free or heavily subsidised courses” – Peter Egan , Director of Further Education & Training, MSLETB
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Irish workers are not star pupils in upskilling and lifelong learning
Companies need to move further education and training up their agenda
Foreign companies investing in Ireland often cite Ireland’s well-educated young workforce as one of the reasons for locating here. But while Irish employees might start out with a gold star, they don’t stay at the top of the class.
Eurostat figures for 2021 show that just under 14 per cent of workers aged 25 to 65 in Ireland participate in lifelong learning to bolster their professional development. This is up significantly from just 6.5 per cent in 2016, but still well below participation rates of as high as 34 per cent in Sweden, 30 per cent in Finland, 26 per cent in the Netherlands and 22 per cent in Denmark.
The EU’s lifelong learning target is for at least 60 per cent of the adult population to participate in some form of training every year by 2030.
Why employees close the door on education once they get a job is not clear, but Peter Egan, director of further education and training with Mayo Sligo Leitrim Education and Training Board, says things need to change if Ireland Inc is going to cope well with challenges such as maintaining competitiveness, the rapid shift to digitalisation and the changing world of work.
Egan is prepared to give employers and employees the benefit of the doubt – as in maybe they don’t know that training boards around the State are more than willing to help organisations and individuals upskill, reskill and enhance their qualifications. They have training advisers and employment engagement officers who will work with companies to identify training needs and skills gaps and help to plug them, often with free or heavily subsidised courses.
“Further education and training or FET is a relatively new term and replaces vocational training,” Egan says. “The Government is investing heavily in its rollout to ensure that the skills of the existing workforce remain agile and responsive in an economic climate that is rapidly changing.
“We have 2.4 million people in our workforce and it’s really important that they upskill on a regular basis to stay current,” says Egan, who adds that there is ample evidence that organisations that stay on top of learning and development survive longer, perform better and have a happier and more engaged workforce.
“Learning throughout one’s life has become a necessity. That’s not just for learning’s sake, but for economic needs as well. In today’s labour market, people need to learn how to learn; to relearn; unlearn; and learn again,” writes Harry Patrinos, an expert in the economics of education at the World Bank.
“Lifelong learning is human capital,” Patrinos says, “preparation for the world of work [and] for the uncertain world of tomorrow”.
To keep up with the relentless pace of change, Patrinos also talks about the need to develop new and overarching skills as opposed to those needed to do a specific job. These include problem-solving, self-management and communications as well as developing competency in the social skills required for good teamwork, resilience and collaboration which is becoming ever more important in today’s distributed working environments.
Patrinos says these types of broader skills are key in the race between education and technology, which is creating a more precarious working environment as certain types of jobs fall victim to computerisation. The flip side of the coin is that automation will also create jobs but “highly skilled workers will be needed to work alongside technology”, he says.
Historically, there’s been an emphasis here on pointing school-leavers towards higher education courses that take three or four years to complete. That’s not a problem if the labour market can wait that long for them to qualify. However, with companies crying out for staff, workers are needed now and this is where shorter bursts of focused training, tailored in-house courses and apprenticeships that allow people to contribute from day one can help pick up the slack.
According to the Department of Education’s Education Indicators for Ireland, published in December 2021, enrolments are up on Springboard, Skillnet and FET courses while the numbers participating in apprenticeships have increased almost 100 per cent between 2016 and 2020.
This is set to rise even further as apprenticeships in both traditional and new areas aim to attract 10,000 participants across 80 disciplines when fully subscribed.
As an example of how strategic in-house training can equip companies for the future, Egan cites the growing requirement for digital competence.
“If a company is putting in new systems that require more digital fluency, we can develop training to support the transition and can do it quite rapidly, either with our own staff or with external contractors,” he says. “There is also training available to help people move into management and supervisory roles, and formal training to support the 400,000 people here who are working in sales.
“I think most organisations know they should be looking at their skills needs and when you talk to them, they acknowledge this but there seems to be a big gap between what they know they should be doing and what they actually do.
“Basically, other things take priority and we’re trying to encourage companies to move further education and training up their agenda in their own interests. There’s a lot of information out there about different courses and it can be difficult to navigate, but we are happy to help any company regardless of size to find what it needs,” Egan says.