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29 July 2016 | 0

Niall Kitson portraitOn this week’s TechRadio I talk with Comtrade’s Dejan Cusic about the digital skills gap and what his company (based in Slovenia with a significant operation in Ireland) does to combat what is a Europe-wide problem. It’s a topic I want to revisit here in the context of a report issued by the government’s Expert Group on Future Skills Needs (EGFSN) entitled Lifelong Learning in Ireland.

According to the report Ireland is badly trailing our EU partners when it comes to continuing education after entering the workforce. Only 7% of 25- to 64-year-olds claimed to be in some form of ongoing learning, compared to an EU average of 11%. The split among the sexes reveals a more worrying trend: only 6.3% of men said they were engaged in either formal or informal learning activities, versus 8% of women.

Also of concern is the breadth of definitions used in the report as to what constituted a ‘learning activity’ in the first place. Well, this seems to be largely based on a flexible definition ranging from school- or college- based education through to regular in-service training or seminars in informal settings. Whether you’re a full-time student or a professional that regularly attends conferences or briefings such as our TechFire series, you fit the bill.

That less than 10% of the workforce is engaged in some form of ongoing education is concerning, but at a time when the tech sector is crying out for new talent of any age from any background, you have to wonder why more people aren’t either keeping their skills current or moving across sectors. You would think at a time when the economy is still fragile the appetite for ongoing career development would be much stronger – particularly as hungry graduates with lower salary expectations enter the market. Apparently not.

Attitude adjustment
I would ascribe this to an attitude to learning that sees education as a finite process, starting at primary level and finishing when you enter the workforce full time. After that sure isn’t is all a matter of gaining experience? Maybe in some cases but this line of reason presupposes an evolutionary change in work practices and that you will have only one career in your lifetime. Today neither is the case. We live in a time where the rapid pace of technological disruption has colleges struggling to come with courses addressing new skill sets. Examples would be the country’s first MSc in IT Architecture to be based out of IT Tallaght and the HDip in Science in Computing at IT Blanchardstown – both of which use a blended learning approach combining classroom activities with industry experience.

The blended learning approach suits the technology space particularly well. Industry involvement ensures the latest technologies will be involved and students will get the chance to showcase their abilities to potential employers directly. At a minimum, participants will be able to add some depth behind skills they picked up due to operational necessity.

If you’re not interested in waiting for the colleges to put something together, there are cases where companies are putting their own academies and summer schools together to address the shortages they are experiencing with a view to either hiring or at least spreading awareness of the problems the industry faces. So far this year on TechRadio we’ve spoken to Seamus Byrne of Graphic Mint about how this has worked in UX and, as mentioned, Cusic goes into detail in the current edition about how Comtrade is using summer schools and even their own university for short courses. And that’s before we get into user-selected short courses as delivered through Lynda, Alison, Udemy etc where you can pick up specific skills for a small time investment.

According to EGFSN, the government has targeted 10% participation in lifelong learning in the ‘medium term’. That’s as vague a commitment as you can set. Still, it’s an achievable goal so long as people stop thinking of education as a process of acquiring a string of letter in a series of long-term commitments in specific fields, to the acquisition of skills throughout your working life. There are roles for government and employers and professionals to ensure the right people are in the right careers – even if those careers aren’t fully defined yet. Next year’s Big Data star analyst could be slugging away in an accounts department waiting for an opportunity in a different sector that would make use of his natural attention to detail. All they need to know is they have mobility and need a tweaking, not an overhaul, of their skills.

As EGFSN chair Una Halligan said at the launch of the National Skills Strategy earlier this year: “We need to create a culture of lifelong learning in Ireland, with shared responsibility on the part of employers, education and training providers, government, and learners themselves. The greatest progress towards improving our lifelong learning rate could be expected to come from expanding opportunities for non-formal learning, especially in the workplace.”

Forget education as a finite process – if you want to excel it should become a lifestyle choice.

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