As Ireland’s economic recovery gathers momentum, skills shortages are beginning to emerge in some key business sectors. There is a real concern that these shortages may act as a break, slowing growth. As partners of the IBEC event series entitled ‘The Skills Gap. Making the Right Connection’, we talked to Tony Donohue Head of Education, Social and Innovation at IBEC to ask him how this problem can be addressed.
Despite the official unemployment rate still standing at 10%, there is a skills shortage in the economy, what are the skills shortages and are they specific to Ireland?
Even during the depths of the recession, ICT professionals, particularly software engineers and developers, were in constant demand. Some of the shortages are in core technology skills but others, for example Big Data and social media, require a combination of skills such as technology, statistics, business and marketing. This, however, is a global problem. Given our industrial profile and the fact that all the major technology companies have a significant presence here, it attracts more attention here.
Do you think there is a concern that these shortages could act as a brake, slowing growth?
This could be a constraint on future growth unless it is addressed. However, I would be confident that it will be addressed. The importance of education meeting labour market needs has been highlighted by successive government strategy reports on both higher and further education. The challenge is translating this policy rhetoric into reality.
Do you think the skills shortage will affect foreign direct investment in Ireland?
No, talent has always, and will continue to be, the reason why multinational companies choose to locate here. Ireland ranks first in the world for the availability of skills and fourth for the quality of its education system, according to the IMD World Competitiveness report. Where skill shortages exist, they tend to be in occupations where there is a global shortage.
What can be done to address the skills shortage?
The education and training system must be closely aligned with the skill needs of employers, particularly at a regional level. This is the thinking behind the regional skills seminars that we have developed in association with Electric Ireland. They are designed to build relationships and collaboration among the key stakeholders – public and private sector employers, education providers, local agencies and policy makers. The seminars are based on the view that employers need to engage more with education and education providers should adapt to what business needs.
Do you think education providers in Ireland are agile enough to address the skills shortage in the short term?
This isn’t just the responsibility of education providers. Employers also have to be prepared to engage. This will only work through partnerships between business and education. Recent government initiatives such as Momentum, Springboard and the ICT Action Plan have also encouraged education providers to be more responsive. The ICT Action Plan for high-level ICT skills is designed to double the output of honours-level graduates by 2018. The Springboard programme was established to retrain the unemployed with in-demand skills, providing free education and training programmes to allow 6,500 jobseekers to gain skills and to access work opportunities in identified growing sectors. There are many specific examples of education providers and business working together to address skills needs. However, this collaboration needs to be more systematic in order to be normalised.
What advice would you give school leavers entering third level education?
There are a number of factors to be considered in making the correct college course choice. However, the most important remain the applicant’s own interests and strengths, and the potential value of the qualification on the jobs market. While it is difficult to precisely predict possible vacancies in the medium term, businesses are able to pick up the direction of change based on observing trends, the strategic direction of their own organisations and the type of employability skills that they will require. This is the information that students should factor into their course choice. So, in a nutshell, I would suggest do lots of research, take advice but, ultimately, follow your passion.