As we come towards the end of 2020, the one that marks my 35th year with Microsoft, I have been reflecting on what has proven to be one of the most challenging, yet transformative, years to be in business. Companies moving to a remote environment overnight, public-health restrictions keeping us at home, no travel, home schooling, e-medicine, no face-to-face engagement, universities online, charities providing support remotely.
This rapid shift in how we live, work and do business has been made possible by people’s willingness to rise to the challenge and use technology as a force for good. Previously, we would have spent months encouraging organisations to shift to the cloud (data-storage services) – suddenly, they were calling us and fully embracing a solution that helped them to be productive regardless of where they were physically based.
I've seen a lot of change and evolution since I joined Microsoft in 1986 as employee number 24 in Dublin. Microsoft was one of the first multinational companies to choose Ireland as its European base but since then we've seen Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google and TikTok among many others join us and position Ireland as a global hub for innovation and technology.
When Microsoft first started here, our ambition was to introduce a computer into homes, schools and businesses across Ireland. A PC was not common in a workplace and schools had a few desktops in a computer lab if they were lucky. Successive waves of FDI (foreign direct investment) brought about new job opportunities over recent decades and supported the development of a vibrant ecosystem of start-ups.
Ireland’s attraction as a location of choice for investment has been its focus on the future and always ensuring that our workforce has the skills and education it needs to succeed. From a time when many people aspired to finish secondary school, to today when most young people graduate from third level – Ireland now has one of the most educated workforces in the world.
That's why Microsoft always prioritised skills. For more than 25 years we have been helping unemployed people acquire skills they need to help them gain a role in the technology sector. From a project in Ballymun in Dublin called Tramlines, to a partnership with FIT (Fastrack to Information Technology) that focused on youth unemployment after the recession in 2008, to programmes and initiatives that we are investing in today, which range from community-based training schemes to support for PhDs.
And while Ireland’s education system is recognised globally, we have been slow to digitise our curriculum and our classrooms. It is really important that children in school today have the right level of skills when they come out that will enable them to have the jobs of tomorrow – whatever they might be. Skills including adaptability, collaboration, innovation and creativity; essential skills in today’s world but not subjects taught in school.
We stand at another crossroads in Ireland’s journey of change and transformation. As our economy and society begins to reopen and the roll-out of a Covid-19 vaccine becomes a reality, it’s clear that the economy and workforce of 2021 will not be what it was in January of this year.
The economic impact of the pandemic has led to a significant rise in unemployment. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their jobs across the hospitality, retail and tourism sectors in particular. For some, this is a temporary situation, for others, their opportunity to build a career in the industry they had selected has been considerably impacted.
In parallel, the forced lockdown and restrictions have resulted in the rapid emergence of new employment and economic perspectives. From digital marketing to cloud services, CX (customer experience) to engineering, the jobs of the future are quickly becoming a reality. Having the right skills to match the jobs in our economy is central to our future success. The countries that start to plan for the future by upskilling now will do best in the years ahead.
The reality is that Ireland is not keeping pace with the skills that are needed to fill the in-demand jobs of today, let alone over the coming decade.
Industry, government and community groups all have a role to play in addressing the digital-skills gap that has emerged in recent times. Our collective response to the immediate challenges posed by Covid-19 provides a blueprint in how we can address this challenge quickly and effectively.
By coming together to share our insights, expertise and resources, we can help to ensure that people of all ages, experiences and ambition have the skills to participate fully in a digital world. We can also work together to inform the third- and fourth-level courses of the future – responding to innovation and the emergence of new tech – making sure we have people with the right qualifications to lead us into the future.
In line with our own mission to empower every person to achieve more, Microsoft has created the DreamSpace digital-skills experience. Through an initial investment of €5 million in 2018, we have been able to engage more than 42,000 young people in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) while also equipping them with computational thinking, creativity and problem-solving skills they’ll need in their future careers.
We're also partnering with third-level institutions, including Dublin City University, to equip teachers with the modern tools and skills they will need within the classroom.
The creation by the Government of the Department of Higher and Further Education is a step in the right direction. Above all, it reflects that education is a lifelong journey that does not simply stop when we leave the school gate.
Although established only a few short months ago, the department has already put in place 14,000 free or subsidised higher-education places to help upskill Ireland’s workforce and has launched Skillnet Ireland’s new Skills Connect initiative, the Human Capital Initiative and Springboard to support workers severely affected by Covid-19 to reskill quickly.
At Microsoft, we are looking at how we can expand our range of educational and training initiatives so that we address the emerging needs of people within the economy. Getting people back to work and fully engaged in society, in the new and emerging sectors, will be central to an inclusive and sustainable recovery.
Digital transformation of our public sector, our businesses and society is central to Ireland’s future success. We can’t achieve this without driving innovation and this can’t be done without the right skills and the right people.
Curriculum at primary and secondary level, how we teach it and how we assess students’ achievements must also continually evolve so that the next generation is prepared for the future of work. Artificial intelligence and data can play a key role here. Although change can be disruptive, only by continually transforming our learning and education system can we meet the evolving needs of both the current and future workforce.
If we can make lifelong learning a reality and can integrate technology fully into the learning experience, I’m confident that we can equip every person with the skills they need to secure the jobs of the future. In doing so we can enable them to do more and to help shape the new digital world.
Cathriona Hallahan is managing director of Microsoft Ireland