European Year of Skills

European Year of Skills

Full Transcript: The Minister, Deputy Harris, informed me on my way into the Chamber that I might be at least partially to blame for this debate because I asked for it during oral questions in the Chamber earlier this year. If I am partially to blame, I am happy to bear that blame because this is a valuable debate to have, especially at the start of the European Year of Skills and in light of the launch of the OECD report yesterday, which, I have to admit, somewhat passed me by. I had to go back and have the executive summary printed off to have a look at it before speaking.

I attended a lecture at the then Coláiste Mhuire in 2004 or 2005, when I was engaged in the teacher training programme there. Ena Morley lectured in Coláiste Mhuire and went on to be principal at St. Ultan’s Primary School in Cherry Orchard. I am usually fairly resistant to aphorisms, inspirational quotations and so on, but she said two things to our class group that year which have stuck with me ever since. She said that what had got us there would not be enough to keep us there, and that if we were not going forwards, we would go backwards. That was something I tried to bring into my teaching career. There is no doubt the primary school classroom I first entered in 2005 was an entirely different place from the classroom I left on entering the Dáil in 2020. What she said describes the modern workplace, whereby jobs and their requirements change all the time, as do the expectations we have of people. Whether it is through digitisation or, increasingly, through artificial intelligence, we are going to see greater and greater displacement of jobs that were traditionally white-collar jobs, which might not be as used to being displaced in the way Deputy Gannon described more blue-collar jobs as having been displaced in the past through automation.

As a result, we have to set our mindset differently in this country. I have always held that we provide formal primary and secondary school education very well in this country. Likewise, in tertiary education, our numbers hold up in OECD comparisons. I am not sure, however, that we do lifelong learning anywhere close to as successfully as we ought to do. The Minister mentioned Finland and Sweden as the top performers in this regard. I had a look on the EUROSTAT averages, from which we take these performance indicators, and Ireland is mid-table. Approximately 14% of our working-age population, that is, those between 16 and 64, had engaged in education within the preceding four weeks, or close to one in six people. The leaders in this field, Sweden and Finland, are at 35% and 31%, respectively. One in three people, or more, in those countries had engaged in further or continuing education during the preceding four weeks. As the Minister said, that is where we should be setting the bar. We should look to compete with the people at the very top. It would be a worthy goal to strive towards 30%, doubling our current figure.

Skills training, in its current form, is not actually what people often visualise when we talk about skills. Deputy Ó Laoghaire talked about what has been described at a meeting of the education committee as a cultural handbrake on apprenticeships, and I fully agree. It is something we have to overcome. Nevertheless, many of us, when we think of skills training, still think about that four-year apprenticeship model. In fact, modern skills training is much more about high-flexibility learning, micro-credentials, work-based learning and work-integrated learning, all of which are about supplementing and adding to a person’s skills base. In that regard, I agree with what Deputy O’Reilly said about us needing to create a space within workforces and so on to have that protected time. That is important not just for employees but for employers as well. The modern workforce is much more mobile, and the retention of staff is increasingly an issue for employers. Increasingly, in my view, staff are going to expect to be able to upskill and train in that way, so it would be worth employers’ while trying to carve out that space as well.

Other complications we have with this increased flexibility in provision include the fact more and more actors are active in this space, such as the technological universities, TUs, the education and training boards, ETBs, and Skillnet, as well as the likes of Enterprise Ireland coming in and co-designing courses with large-scale employers and talking to the TUs. One of the priorities within the OECD report relates to strengthening skills governance to build a joined-up skills ecosystem in order that there will be a proliferation of actors within this space. We need to ensure people are not at cross-purposes or competing for individual funding streams, and that the various actors within the space will talk to one another such that we will maximise the learning offering we are handing to people. This question of lifelong learning is about developing not just human capital but also social capital. I do not want to fall too far down the rabbit hole of talking about skills aimed directly at our workforce. We should also, in this European Year of Skills, be talking about what the Minister set us as a challenge, namely, for each of us to learn one new skill this year. I was going to recommend that the Ceann Comhairle work on keepy-uppies as his skill, although that might not be the most appropriate one. It is not just workforce skills; it might be that someone wishes to engage with Conradh na Gaeilge to brush up on the Irish language, for example. That might not be for any sort of workforce-related reason and could instead be for personal development.

There is an impediment for technological universities in the provision of post-primary teacher education. This harks back to the 1970s, when the Teaching Council established centres of excellence. There has been significant movement and growth in the university sector, and I am not sure about a determination made in the 1970s regarding where centres of excellence in education might lie. In the South East Technological University in Waterford, in particular, we have a strong track record of providing adult education, including Calmast, which specialises in science education.

The funding model is an issue in that I do not think we are really there yet in terms of how we fund lifelong learning. Increasingly, we are seeing that, with the increases in the cost of living, people are not self-funding for these short courses in the way they used to. This makes it challenging to provide course content. If a college relies on a given number of people to sign up and pay their fees to provide course content, and if people start minding their pennies and decide they are not going to take the course, be it in Gaeilge, retrofitting or whatever, it will be difficult to provide that course. Businesses, too, are asking questions regarding the National Training Fund, NTF. They are making contributions to it and are asking me why the fund is in surplus when we so badly need skills throughout the economy. As I said, the Minister put it up to us to learn one new skill this year. An idea is beginning to take root in France and Belgium, which are looking at this closely. It involves providing people with an allowance to engage with lifelong learning.

Would that not be a wonderful way to mark European Year of Skills? If the Government decided to part-fund each person who decided to engage in further or higher education, building on their own skills, that might be something that would mark the European Year of Skills in a real sense.

This may turn into a bit of a list of skills that we need within the new green economy which I know is one of the core focuses of the European Year of Skills. I have been engaging with people who are working in the offshore wind energy industry. There are a number of jobs and skills that will need to be developed in coming years as we seriously begin to develop our offshore renewable energy projects. This is just a list of jobs and I must admit I do not understand what half of these jobs are. A worker is required to engage in Global Wind Organisation, GWO, training as a minimum on top of their own trade or qualification. In the UK 90% of those training costs are covered. These training courses take about three weeks to complete.

The roles are wind turbine generator, WTG, assembly technicians; rope access technicians at level 2 and level 3; high-voltage technicians – I note that South East Technological University, SETU, is now offering this course; specialist painter-coater; hydraulic technician; riggers; slingers; banksman; crane drivers; blade technicians; store warehouse managers and workers; electrical engineers; mechanical engineers; non-destructive testing, NDT, welders; commissioning engineers and technicians; supervisors and project managers; quality assurance/quality control, QA/QC, engineers; contracts managers; planners; and works coordinators. That is a truncated list. If we are to develop our offshore wind and take advantage of the great offshore potential that we have, that is only the start of the list of new skills that we need to start providing in a serious way. We need to be engaging this workforce planning in a cross-departmental way, as recommended in the OECD report and we need to begin that planning now.