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Ben Davern

Ben Davern

6th Oct 2023

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Skills Gap in Ireland: Urgent Need for Lifelong Learning and Upskilling

The OECD Ireland Skills Strategy Report released in May 2023 raised urgent concerns about the readiness of Irish adults to adapt to changes in the world of work, a concern seconded by IMI. Despite a high proportion of adults holding third-level degrees, the report indicates that a lack of essential upskilling and participation in lifelong learning places many Irish workers at risk of falling behind, overall emphasising the urgent need for increased investment in lifelong learning initiatives.

The extensive policy analysis and stakeholder engagement on skills issues facing Ireland yielded four policy priority areas:

  • Secure balance in skills availability in Ireland through creating a responsive and diversified supply of skills;
  • Foster greater participation in lifelong learning, both within and outside of the workplace;
  • Strengthen governance across a joined-up skills ecosystem across the country;
  • Leverage skills to drive innovation, and strengthen the performance of firms across all business sectors.

Lifelong Learning

Of particular concern, the report highlights a significant disparity in participation rates in lifelong learning between Ireland and top-performing EU countries. While Ireland boasts a significantly higher-than-average percentage of adults with third-level degrees as mentioned, only 14% of the adult population (aged 25-64) engaged in education and training in 2021. In comparison, countries like Sweden and Finland reported rates of 35% and 31% respectively, which reveals a deeply concerning gap in Irish adults’ pursuit of ongoing education and upskilling opportunities. It should be noted the EU average for lifelong learning is a dismal 11%, so Ireland is slightly above the EU average. Nevertheless this figure speaks more to the urgency of the matter EU-wide (excluding high-performers like Finland and Sweden).

Faced with globalisation, digital transformation, demographic change, vulnerability to global megatrends (e.g. war in Ukraine, Covid), sustainability concerns and climate change, adults will need a stronger and more well-rounded set of skills (cognitive, social and emotional) plus specialised job-specific skills in order to flourish. Employers are acutely aware their workforce needs to possess the right skills to drive productivity, innovation and competitiveness, and this lack of essential skills among the Irish workforce poses a serious challenge for organisation seeking to keep pace with rapid technological advancements and evolving market demands. Indeed, developing relevant skills and using them effectively is crucial for Ireland’s overall ability to thrive in an increasingly interconnected and rapidly changing world.


One particular area of concern is the vulnerability of Irish workers to automation. Driven by rapid technological advancements, automation has the potential to revolutionise industries and ways of working, promising increased efficiency, productivity and economic growth. Nevertheless, as automation continues to transform industries, the report highlights the urgent need for upskilling initiatives to ensure Ireland’s workforce remains competitive and adaptable in an evolving market. Without proactive measures, Irish workers risk falling behind. “Technological change can help drive productivity and overcome skills shortages,” the report says. “However, it also means that many people will need to develop skills for new jobs or upgrade their skills for existing ones.”

While Ireland has experienced significant economic growth in recent decades, with Ireland’s relatively high level of skills performance contributing to high levels of innovation, the concern is that many adults won’t have the skills to succeed in a rapidly-changing world and future economy where certain skills may become obsolete.

Investment in Skills Development

“A strong focus on skills has been central to Ireland’s strong economic performance and improvements in well-being,” says OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann, noting significant challenges lie ahead with labour shortages, slowing productivity growth, and the need to successfully navigate the skills implications of green and digital transformation, while dealing with the impact of population ageing. “Ireland can and must build on its strengths by better balancing skills demand and supply, fostering greater participation in lifelong learning, leveraging skills to drive innovation, and strengthening skills governance.”

The report underscores the need for significant investment in skills development, particularly in terms of developing management capabilities, the adoption of high-performance work practices, and investing in future-orientated skills that are less susceptible to automation and disruption (e.g. critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, digital literacy, social and emotional intelligence). But to ensure the growth and competitiveness of organisations across Ireland, it is essential to provide adequate support for upskilling and reskilling initiatives. By empowering employees with the right skills, businesses can enhance their productivity, foster innovation, and address prevailing skills gaps. Upskilling can also empower workers to navigate the evolving job market and ensure a smoother transition into new roles.

IMI welcomes the call for a comprehensive approach involving both businesses and the government in fostering a culture of lifelong learning and providing access to quality programmes. Lifelong learning is not only crucial for individual career advancement but also for the overall economic development of the nation. Continuous learning enables workers to adapt to evolving job requirements, stay ahead of technological disruptions, and unlock new opportunities. It fosters a culture of innovation, resilience and adaptability, which are vital attributes in an ever-changing world of work. By embracing lifelong learning, Irish adults can enhance their employability, remain competitive and contribute to the long-term success of the Irish economy.

Spotlight on Skills

As highlighted in the report, the programme receiving the most attention and praise for helping employers identify their skills needs was Enterprise Ireland’s Spotlight on Skills programme. Spotlight on Skills is part of the Skills for Growth initiative led by DFHERIS and carried out by Enterprise Ireland (EI) in partnership with DFHERIS, IMI, and RSF managers. The programme takes enterprises along a comprehensive process in which they define company aspirations, state company goals, success factors, clarify strategic priorities, identify strategic capabilities, diagnose the skills gaps to build organisational capabilities and create a skills plan to address skills gaps.

Noting the very positive feedback to the programme, the report asks how the programme can be scaled to reach more employers beyond the Enterprise Ireland client base with a strategic growth plan already in place, with stakeholders highlighting EI’s Spotlight on Skills programme as an innovative model that could be usefully applied to other management training and development programmes. The report calls for a review of Ireland’s portfolio of management development opportunities to strengthen focus on workplace transformation and high-performance work practices (HPWPs). As recommended in the report, governmental bodies should work with wider organisations to examine scope to scale-up existing initiatives that develop the skills required to drive improvements in organisational practices, adapt the competency frameworks or content of programmes to include work organisation and job design; or advance new pilots, taking well-established, innovative programmes, such as Skillnet Business Networks or EI’s Spotlight on Skills and apply them to improving work organisation within smaller firms.

Overall, addressing the skills gap requires collaboration between the government, educational institutions, employers, and individuals themselves. The government must allocate resources and create supportive policies to encourage lifelong learning and upskilling. Educational institutions should offer flexible and accessible learning opportunities that cater to the diverse needs of working professionals. Employers must actively invest in training and development programs, recognising the importance of a skilled and agile workforce. Lastly, individuals should embrace a growth mindset, taking personal responsibility for their professional development and seeking out opportunities for continuous learning, and contribute to the long-term success of the Irish economy.

IMI Perspective

The findings of the OECD Ireland Skills Strategy Report serve as an overdue wake-up call for the nation. Irish adults must recognise the pressing need for lifelong learning and upskilling to remain competitive in the workforce and adapt to the ever-changing job landscape. With increased investment, collaboration between stakeholders, and a renewed commitment to ongoing education, Ireland can bridge the skills gap, drive economic growth, and position itself as a leader in the global knowledge economy. The time to act is now to secure a brighter future for Irish workers and businesses alike, before it’s too late.

As far back as 2017, McKinsey was predicting that 375m workers (14% of the global workforce) may need to switch occupational categories by 2030, as digitisation, automation and advances in AI disrupt the world of work. A 2018 McKinsey report deemed investing in training and upskilling to be an urgent priority,  with the magnitude of the challenge compared to the largescale shift from agricultural work to manufacturing that occurred in early 20th century Europe and North America. However, those earlier workforce transformations took place over many decades, allowing older workers to retire and new workforce entrants to transition to growing industries. But the speed of change today is faster, meaning there will be a need to retrain and redeploy tens of millions of mid-career, middle-aged workers. As McKinsey noted over five years ago, “growing awareness of the scale of the task ahead has yet to translate into action.” With only 14% of the Irish workforce engaged in education and training, and the EU average for lifelong learning at 11%, that knowing/doing paradox has yet to be overcome, though hopefully the OECD Skills Strategy Report acts as an overdue wakeup call to the urgency of increased lifelong learning and upskilling investment.

Delivery of Learning Content

But even if this recognition turns into action, there are still challenges to be overcome. For example, delivery of learning content is key, with the executive education and L&D market evolving rapidly in recent years. With the rise of borderless digital providers and global business schools offering remote and online programmes, participants are no longer limited to in-person delivery over a fixed period with an Irish executive education provider. Indeed, IMI research shows an increasing demand for traditionally longer-term courses to be delivered in bite-sized chunks alongside a growing popularity for blended or stackable learning, while 2018 Carrington Crisp research showed three-quarters of firms believed short bursts of learning, delivered flexibly and providing micro-credentials were valuable in meeting developmental needs.

However, despite the rise of non-traditional remote & digital-first learning, face-to-face learning and peer learning is seen as increasingly vital by business leaders and organisations: it facilitates relationship building, networking, creates a shared learning experience, and allows participants to engage in real-time discussions and receive immediate feedback from faculty and peers, none of which the aforementioned non-traditional players and new market entrants can provide as of yet. In a recent IMI focus group, numerous ICT leaders echoed a significant skills and knowledge transfer loss in their organisations due to remote working, with new hires and recent graduates not developing as fast as previous cohorts due to that lack of learning by osmosis. Developing emotional intelligence, trust, empathy, creating a sense of ownership and belonging, and going from being an individual contributor to a people manager – with the requisite communication skills – were all echoed as skills challenges made more complicated by remote conditions, and which requires a learning provider that facilitates face-to-face peer learning.

Beyond peer learning, there are other factors around delivery that government, educational institutions, employers and individuals must take note of. IMI research shows that all leaders – be it senior leaders, or developing and emerging leaders at the beginning of their career – are more time poor than ever, with short bursts of impactful and flexible learning delivered by world class faculty seen as vital. Coaching needs and time for reflection are also paramount, with younger entrants to the workforce often requiring more support and coaching than previous generations. IMI research shows that individual participants are prioritising cost, flexibility, programme content and brand reputation, while the top learning providers are building flexible offerings and leveraging their content, pedagogy and extensive network of connections to meet changing learner needs.

Social Factors and Inequality

There are also social factors that must be addressed at the national and international policy level. Although the need to upskill an educated but aging workforce is urgent, traditionally white-collar worker with third-level degrees are not those most affected by automation and technological changes – in that, while they may need to switch roles or upskill, they have opportunities other socio-economic groups do not have. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, MIT economics professor Daron Acemoglu notes how major technological disruption – such as the Industrial Revolution – can flatten wages for an entire class of working people. “You got progress, but you also had costs that were huge and long and very long-lasting (from the Industrial Revolution). A hundred years of much harsher conditions for working people, lower real wages, much worse health and living conditions, less autonomy, greater hierarchy.” Acemoglu adds that unions, progressive politics, better institutions, and a redirection of technological change away from pure automation were key to stopping that trajectory. Similar intervention and collaboration between multiple stakeholders will be necessary for the incoming Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Time Magazine notes that companies often claim deploying automation and AI allows them to create new jobs. For example, ATMs didn’t immediately decrease the number of bank tellers; rather advances in technologies in that sector created more teller jobs. Lured by the convenience of cash machines, consumers began visiting the bank more frequently which led banks to open more branches and hire tellers to handle tasks beyond the capacity of ATMs. But Time notes the number of new jobs is often minuscule compared with the number of jobs lost overall. Approximately 400,000 jobs were lost to automation in US factories from 1990 to 2007, while one group of economists has estimated that 42% of jobs lost due to the pandemic will never come back, primarily low-wage roles often held by Black and Latino American/Hispanic workers without the same access to upskilling and lifelong learning initiatives as white collar workers, who gain access to skills training and upskilling initiatives either through their organisation or else are in a better financial position to cover the costs themselves. Kristen Broady, professor of financial economics at Dillard University, co-authored a study which showed black workers are overrepresented in 11 of 30 jobs at high risk of being automated, while Hispanic workers are overrepresented in 13 of the 30. A 2019 Forbes article – focusing on how workforce automation exacerbates the racial wealth gap – stated that 4.5 million African Americans may lose their job in the next ten years due to automation, which further demonstrates that automation and technology advances unevenly impact different sectors of the population, and is perhaps the key challenge to overcome.

Intervention and Collaboration

Because, while employers must prioritise investment in upskilling and lifelong learning initiatives for their workforce, there must also be collaboration between governments, educational institutions and other organisations to create access for those most affected by automation-related job loss, which as the above data shows hurts certain segments of the population more than others. In the past, when automation eliminated jobs, companies tended to create new ones (as in the previous banking example), plus there was far more investment in education at the government policy level: for example, when automation changed farm jobs in the late 1800s and the 1900s, the US government expanded access to public schools, while access to college expanded after World War II with the GI Bill. But Time notes that, since then, U.S. investment in education has stalled, putting the burden on workers to pay for it themselves, with the country currently spending 0.1% of GDP to help workers navigate job transitions, less than half what it spent even 30 years ago. Not only does automation allow companies to do more with fewer people (in 1964, the most valuable US company AT&T had nearly 759k workers; the most valuable company today, Apple, had 137k), but the US government actively incentives companies to automate by giving tax breaks for buying machinery and software.

Thus it’s unsurprising that the US alone shed 40 million jobs at the peak of the pandemic – with many of those laid off having no time to retrain and left on their own to find new ways of developing new skills, practically exiled from re-entering the rapidly-changing labour market or being involved in the so-called “Future of Work.” Or that in more recent months, Big Tech has been laying off workers in record numbers after their pandemic-related hiring bubble burst, and seeing huge increases in their stock price as a result of these layoffs (another problematic incentivization).

So what conclusions can we draw? As Daron Acemoglu notes, “Technological progress is the most important driver of human flourishing but we tend to forget the process is not automatic.” Namely, technology can create growth but not necessarily for everyone – at least not immediately and without intervention and collaboration. Rather than a means to replace people, Acemoglu notes technology should be used to increase productivity by giving people better tools, better information and better organisation. Upskilling is vital: empowering and increasing the capabilities of a hugely diverse group of workers, many of whom have been either left behind – or will be left behind in the future – by decades of technology-driven worker displacement.

Wakeup Call

The OECD Skills Strategy Report must act as a wakeup call on three levels: at the organisational level, increased investment and prioritising of upskilling and lifelong learning initiatives; for educators and learning institutions, offering impactful programme content that meets changing learner needs; finally at the government level, ensuring access to upskilling and lifelong learning initiatives for a diverse workforce of various demographics and socio-economic backgrounds, many of whom have been and will continue to be hit hardest by automation and advances in technology – otherwise, governments will be forced to deal with a potentially crippling welfare state made up of workers who cannot compete in the modern labour market or find employment.

Only through meeting these challenges, and collaboration between all, can technological advances in automation and artificial intelligence reach their full potential to benefit humanity: freeing up people from repetitive or dangerous tasks so they can take up more sophisticated and intellectually stimulating tasks, leading to increased productivity, higher worker wages and better bottom-line business returns.

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