When you’re picking a course, the most important consideration is whether you’ll enjoy studying this topic for three or four years.
But it also makes sense to consider employability. Students are right to question what sort of jobs a course might lead to, but there’s another, increasingly important question alongside it: what skills will this course give me?
Shauna Dunlop, director of strategy, research and evaluation with Solas, the further education and training agency, sits on the board of the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs. The group produce a regular National Skills Bulletin, which gives a snapshot of the occupations in demand in the Irish labour market.
Dunlop says that predicting the labour market has always been somewhat challenging, but that the coronavirus crisis has made it ever more so – nobody making predictions in 2016, for instance, could have foreseen that a global pandemic would have such an impact on hospitality and retail jobs.
“While they have been impacted, it doesn’t mean that they won’t recover,” Dunlop says. “But the impact of Covid-19 was not evenly distributed across the Irish labour market. Employment fell for those in part-time roles, with lower levels of education and those in operative and elementary roles including cleaners, taxi drivers and waiters. In contrast, employment increased in sectors such as ICT, finance and public administration.”
There are now skills shortages in science and engineering, ICT, business and finance, health, construction, arts, sports and tourism. For the class of 2026, it’s likely that language, business, health, science and engineering graduates will still be in high demand. The current shortage of transport and logistics workers may also continue into the second half of this decade.
Construction is an area that has traditionally seen demand rise and fall based on the property market, with many graduates in construction and related courses, such as quantity surveying, emigrating in search of work during lean times.
“Government targets in relation to climate and housing are expected to increase demand for construction-related skills across a variety of occupations including operatives, skills trades and supervisors and engineers,” says Dunlop.
'There has been a reorientation from the jobs we need people to work in, towards the skills we need graduates to have'
“With an aging demographic, demand for healthcare services will continue to grow. An increased demand for digital skills, particularly accelerated as a result of Covid-19, is likely across all sectors. Employment in the ICT sector continued to grow throughout the restrictions imposed as a result of Covid-19 and is likely to continue well into the future. And as the transport sector evolves, demand for those with logistics skills is expected to continue to grow.”
Research by Solas shows that people with a level six or seven QQI Post Leaving Cert or apprenticeship qualification had a higher proportion of employment than third-level students with the same QQI level qualification.
About 21 per cent of school-leavers go from their Leaving Cert to a further education and training PLC course and, in turn, these graduates either go on to secure a job or move into a college course. That won’t be the end of their education journey, however: today’s graduate is more likely to engage in postgraduate study – not just one but sometimes two master’s degrees – as well as “micro-credentials” and “modular learning”, which involve shorter bursts of learning, whether through a short online course or a single in-person module.
But what is increasingly important to employers is not necessarily the job someone might get but the skills they acquire in education, such as self-efficacy, resilience and creativity. Whatever course someone ultimately chooses, whether in higher or further education, a good programme will help them to develop these.
Colleges are keen to develop the 'transversal' or 'soft' skills of graduates, including communication, analysis and problem-solving
"There has been a reorientation from the jobs we need people to work in, towards the skills we need graduates to have," says Dr Tony Hall, senior lecturer in educational technology and director of educational design research for Designing Futures at NUI Galway (NUIG). "The pandemic has highlighted the uncertainty of the world, so while the discipline-specific roles of scientist, engineer, teaching, doctor or entrepreneur are still important, NUI Galway are also now giving skills in innovation, collaboration, and empathy." (see panel for more details)
Designing Futures, a new programme at NUIG, is about breaking down the traditional academic barriers to encourage students to work across disciplines and develop new ideas and solutions to the type of challenges and problems they might encounter in the real world. “One of our [NUIG] modules is on storytelling, and this sees students from business, humanities, medicine, education and other disciplines work together to develop their storytelling and communication skills,” says Hall.
NUIG’s optional modules are in tune with a push in third level to develop skills that they can apply to whatever job they work in.
Across third levels, these types of modules are becoming increasingly common, with colleges keen to develop the "transversal" or "soft" skills of graduates, including communication, analysis and problem-solving: Maynooth University is among the third levels that have developed interdisciplinary modules while Dublin City University's innovative Uaneen module, named after the late broadcaster Uaneen Fitzsimons, rewards students for critically reflecting on their development through extracurricular college activity.
Students at NUIG will also work on vertically integrated projects (VIPs), working in a multidisciplinary team of staff and students to tackle research challenges in culture, industry and society including climate change, innovation and new product development.
“A further, key inspirational aspect of Designing Futures is that it does not solely focus on enhancing students’ employability for when they graduate,” says Hall. “The student’s rounded/holistic development is critical; consequently, through Designing Futures, students will avail of personal skills training, and learning and development in tools that will be of use to them throughout their lives, helping them to personally discern and decide the best career and life choices as they move through life.”
Students taking part in the university’s Designing Futures project have the opportunity to work on real-world, authentic and engaging projects and tasks that have the potential for high-impact in the economy, says Hall.
“Students [will] develop essential life skills which significantly enhance their employability – and be recognised and rewarded for it.”