Ireland offers a best-practice example of workforce development for the 21st century

Ireland offers a best-practice example of workforce development for the 21st century

Paul Healy, Chief Executive, Skillnet Ireland, outlines a collaborative and enterprise-led approach to investing in and nurturing the skills businesses need to succeed in a changing world


Skillnet Ireland is the business support agency mandated by the Irish government to increase the competitiveness, productivity and innovation of Irish businesses through enterprise-led workforce development. How would you rate the overall skills, capabilities, strength and adaptability of the Irish workforce at the moment? How adapted is it to the current needs of businesses and society?

People are the greatest asset Ireland has. We are not rich in natural resources, so the biggest competitive strength we have is our workforce—our well-educated, skilled and agile workforce. But the world is constantly changing, and investing in and nurturing this asset is something that we need to keep a relentless focus on. Technology, new ways of working, new employment models, the effect of climate change and global competition are reshaping the workforce, demanding new ways of working, and new skills and talent. For a country like Ireland, we have to continuously nurture our most precious resource, our people.

Within that we have our challenges of course. Ireland’s enterprise structure revolves on the one hand around large corporations and multinationals, and on the other hand around a large small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) sector that’s oriented toward specialized manufacturing and services. There are great strengths in this model, but it needs a rigorous focus on the talent and skills agenda to ensure our businesses have the talent they need to compete, and that the people employed in those businesses are developing 21st-century skills and have good career opportunities.


How has Skillnet Ireland enabled boosts in competitiveness, productivity, innovation and digital transformation in the country?

We use a highly specialized approach to talent and people development that we describe as “enterprise-led.” We work directly alongside businesses and the enterprise sector. We help them to identify the big trends that are shaping their industries, whether those are new technologies, market opportunities, competitive forces, changes in regulation or the impact of climate action. Working together, we figure out what this means for businesses in terms of jobs of today, jobs of the future and talent. Fundamentally, this is a collaborative process we lead on with the enterprise sector, and that results in a very close alignment between what employers actually need and what is delivered in terms of programs.

We do this in two ways. We’ve developed 70 business networks throughout Ireland, which collaborate directly with employers to deliver a range of business supports including specific upskilling and staff-development solutions they need. In parallel with these networks, Skillnet Ireland is also focused on developing programs that can help businesses navigate the macro trends that are shaping the landscape for every business, such as climate action, innovation and digitization.

Our approach works because we have deep roots in the enterprise sector in Ireland, which brings several advantages. Firstly, we give a direct voice to employers—they’re at the forefront of their industries and are best placed to see what new jobs are coming down the line, or what the future of work looks like. By working closely with businesses, the upskilling programs Skillnet Ireland delivers are very closely aligned to the real demands of the labor market.

This approach also brings with it a distribution model. Small firms in particular can be difficult to access, but because we work with a wide partner base that includes chambers of commerce, industry representative bodies, sectorial associations, and various industry clusters and business networks, we have our own unique distribution model, which gives us direct access to thousands of SMEs every year. The government benefits from this nationwide platform we have developed as the policy priorities and talent demands of the labor market are being fulfilled by the private sector. Our work complements the objectives of the broader public education system. Our approach has been very effective at delivering real business impact, whether that’s helping small businesses navigate change and develop specific skills or delivering the resources industries and sectors will need to remain competitive in the future.


Could you give us a few key facts and figures to help us understand the significance and impact of Skillnet Ireland in the country? What have been some of your main achievements and flagship projects over the years?

In 2020, Skillnet Ireland supported 19,000 businesses—85 percent of which were SMEs and micro-firms—and 70,000 workers. We delivered over 8,500 programs spanning certified and non-certified courses, industry or professional certified courses, management development programs, specialized upskilling, new industry and academia collaborations, and many innovation- and research-based projects.

One flagship project that comes to mind is our Future Dynamics initiative that facilitates the development of new programs in partnership with industry, academic institutions and other stakeholders. Over the years, we have developed many innovative programs in a wide range of areas including aviation leasing, sustainable finance, artificial intelligence (AI), fintech, digitalization of manufacturing, data science, animation, organic farming, connected health and wind energy. All have addressed business opportunities and offered excellent career development pathways for our workforce. As part of the Future Dynamics series, several projects are currently underway to examine how the workforce of the future will to adapt new ways of learning, including the use of micro-credentials and digital badges.


As part of its new five-year strategy unveiled in December, Skillnet Ireland aims to double the numbers participating in training programs. Helping the Irish workforce implement digital transformation and cope with the implications of climate change are two key priorities that were identified in your new strategy. Can you tell us more about the initiatives that you intend to take in this area? How would you summarize the other main priorities within your Transforming Business Through Talent 2021-2025 strategy?

Skillnet Ireland’s strategy focuses on three broad areas: digitalization, supporting SMEs and climate action. When it comes to digitalization, we collaborate extensively with our industry partners, IDA Ireland and the major technology companies based in Ireland. Again, we do this in an enterprise-led way, talking to companies to uncover the latest industry trends and what they mean in terms of skills. This collaborative approach has enabled us to carve out a niche in supplying the unrelenting demand for highly specialized technology skills. We’ve developed strong positions, for example, in boosting female participation in tech, AI, blockchain, data science, fintech and cybersecurity. These are seen by the tech industry in Ireland as a source of great competitive strength, and a means for Ireland to continue to win future technology and startup investment.

We also look at the digitalization agenda for smaller firms, which of course have their own unique demands. As a result of COVID-19, SMEs have begun to rapidly digitalize, finding new ways to bring their products and services to customers, whether through e-commerce, digital marketing or new online platforms. We are extensively involved in supporting small firms on their digital journey—not only in terms of digital skills, but also helping them to strategically digitalize their business overall.

We’re also focused on climate action, or the climate emergency to be more precise. Almost every industry, business and job category will be impacted by climate action in some way over the coming decades and the Irish government has rightly set ambitious targets in terms of climate action. These targets require great levels of new skills and new talent. Skillnet Ireland has already built strong positions in sustainable finance and in the “greening” of the finance sector, as well as in wind energy and other renewables, in sustainable construction and in clean water. Over the next phase of our strategy, we intend to significantly increase our activities and programs in support of climate action, with a focus in 2021 and 2022 on sustainable practices in SMEs and on retrofit. So this is quite a demanding agenda for us—helping to supply the skills and talent that Ireland will need to fulfill its commitments under its Climate Action Plan and the United Nations sustainable development goals that Ireland has adopted.

The COVID-19 crisis has had a really strong impact on employment in Ireland. Before the crisis, the country was enjoying one of the stronger employment rates in the European Union (EU). How important is reskilling and upskilling in these times of COVID? Has the crisis reshuffled Skillnet Ireland’s priorities or has it launched specific programs in response to the pandemic?

Like every country, Ireland has been heavily affected by the pandemic. It has had a significant impact on the customer-facing service industry in particular, and we are seeing very high unemployment levels and businesses struggling in sectors such as hospitality, retail, catering, fitness and leisure, tourism, the creative industries and others.

Yet there are other changes as a result of COVID-19—for example, remote-working or hybrid-working models that have been successful, with many businesses thriving under these models. That is helpful for a country like Ireland in particular, as it presents an opportunity to boost regional employment and investment. People can work outside the large urban centers and avoid long daily commutes.

The COVID-19 crisis also presents an opportunity to reset the SME sector, to build new models, to reengineer existing ones and to build resilience in our small firms in particular, so they are better able to cope with the next big shock that comes. The COVID-19 crisis also poses important questions to us around workers in the locally traded service sector especially. Employment in this sector can be vulnerable because of the nature of the work itself, that is often seasonal or lower skilled. A global economic shock such as COVID-19 exacerbates this vulnerability. There is an opportunity for us to address this issue, to invest in people employed in the service sector through upskilling and to build new career opportunities and routes to career progression.

One particular example I can mention is the Skillnet Ireland Skills Connect initiative. We were determined that Skillnet Ireland would play the fullest role in the National Action Plan in Response to COVID-19 by leveraging our deep roots with Ireland’s SMEs and the service sector. We rapidly developed Skills Connect, securing the commitment of over 400 companies, including some of the largest corporations based in Ireland, to host work placements and on-the-job upskilling for jobseekers. Skills Connect is now empowering thousands of impacted workers from the customer-facing service sector to secure new job opportunities in areas offering much greater employment potential, such as technology, agri-food, medtech, logistics, healthcare, energy efficiency, law, cybersecurity and customer experience (CX). Skills Connect is an important component of our government’s response to the unemployment crisis, with over 7,000 individuals supported in its first phase and with the scheme achieving a high conversion rate to employment.


Another challenge Ireland is faced with now is Brexit, which became a reality at the start of the year. This will have significant consequences for Ireland due to its high exposure to the U.K., as 95,000 Irish firms trade with Britain. In a recent interview, you said: “Businesses and small firms can’t bury their heads in the sand. They have to face the challenge of Brexit in the coming weeks. It’s a question of just taking action.” How did Skillnet Ireland prepare for Brexit?
We first need to look at what happened before January 1, 2021. The U.K. voted to leave the EU in 2016, so we had four years of preparations to get the enterprise sector ready for the reality of our closest neighbor exiting the Single Market and Customs Union. There has been a substantial and successful cross-government and business collaboration to ready our enterprise sector for that change. For example, we focused heavily on customs preparedness for firms that are trading with or through Britain, getting firms ready for new customs procedures that hadn’t existed for many years. We also encouraged businesses to explore opportunities in new markets and to see where their supply chains might be impacted. As we move forward, we look to a different trading relationship with the U.K. Ireland has close ties to the U.K. on practically every level—family, culture and business. We will build on these deep bonds and seize the immense opportunities for business both in Ireland and the U.K., which will continue to present as they have always done.


Q: Currently, Skillet Ireland works with over 57 industry bodies and enterprise clusters, supporting more than 18,000 businesses and 70,000 trainees annually. How are you working to expand your network and craft additional partnerships with local businesses?

The greatest strength of Skillnet Ireland is its collaborative partnership. Ireland is fortunate to be well served by a vibrant enterprise sector that is well organized into trade associations, industry groups, sectoral groups and chambers of commerce. We operate through deep collaboration with all of these partners. Each one owns and promotes its own distinct Skillnet training network, which is made up of companies from that industry, region or sector. As I said, we encourage our partners to determine for themselves what programs are required to meet their needs and then we facilitate that on a cost-sharing basis. So, government and the business sector are participating together, working hand in hand. This is close to market approach, where the government investment gets leveraged with private investment. Every €50 the state invests through Skillet Ireland attracts another €50 of private-sector investment. This collaboration and cost sharing has proven to be a very efficient way to invest in skills.


Having yourself worked with multinational companies, how are you leveraging the presence of large multinationals in Ireland to accelerate knowledge transfer?

Skillnet Ireland operates in a strong position at the intersection of government, the enterprise sector and the education system. We’re in the middle of that triangle and, from there, we can comfortably lead and coordinate responses. We see what government wants, we see what businesses need, and we see what the education and training system can deliver. We then mediate that triangle, if you like, making the responses happen and with speed.

One good example is our work in the arena of AI. Through discussions with the technology sector and with our colleagues in IDA Ireland, it was clear that Ireland had an opportunity to achieve a global leadership position in the field of AI, but we had a challenge to address—the absence of a post-graduate level offering in AI. We took up this cause, because we immediately realized the opportunity to leverage Skillnet Ireland’s position between government, the enterprise sector and higher education.

We brought together 40 technology companies, three technology associations and three universities. Working together, we shared requirements, ideated and listened to each other, with Skillnet Ireland providing seed funding and other development supports. Through that collaborative effort, Ireland’s first and Europe’s second-only master’s in AI was launched in 2019. This master’s is now on track to deliver 250 new AI post-graduates every year, which for a small country like Ireland is a big talent boost.


From a communication standpoint, how important is it for you to showcase your presence and existence in the country in order to reassure existing and prospecting investors?

Skillnet Ireland has been recognized by the European Commission and by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development as a best practice example of workforce development. Creating awareness around what we do and promoting our offering through thought leadership, case studies and storytelling is critical as we continue to grow and bring more and more employers with us. We want to encourage businesses to use these really innovative programs that are developed by industry, that are subsidized by government, and that are having a great impact in terms of staff engagement, staff development and, of course, business success. Evaluation is also an important part of what we do. We focus intensely on measuring the outcomes and deliverables of the programs we invest in.


What are some of your main priorities and objectives for 2021 and where would you like to take your organization in the future?

A big focus for us this year will be bringing our service sector in particular through what is hopefully the last difficult phase of COVID-19 as the vaccine is rolled out, and then enabling businesses to restart, thrive and prosper. Another priority is supporting the many thousands of workers that have lost their jobs because of the pandemic and helping them to secure new employment through our Skills Connect initiative, which is our main mechanism for helping jobseekers. Climate action is another key priority—getting businesses and workers ready for the opportunities, not just the challenges, that climate action presents as we move to more sustainable ways of doing business. We see talent as a vital element of that transition.


To conclude, what is your final message for the readers of Newsweek?

Competition is increasing, and disruption and uncertainty are ever present in what is an ever-more interdependent world. Digitalization is accelerating, the very nature of employment is changing and we are seeing rising inequality wherever we look. Skills play an essential role in solving these complex problems and represent perhaps the smartest investment any government or company can make.

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