Covid-19 has accelerated demands for a greater skilled workforce. Are you ready?

Thousands of part-time upskilling courses are available and many are free or subsidised

 

Now, more than ever, learning new skills is an essential part of the workplace – but do you really want to commit to a full- or part-time course?

Simon Harris, Minister of the newly-formed Department of Further and Higher Education, recently announced major changes to how courses are delivered. Short, focused modular courses will be delivered in a flexible manner, with participants able to opt in to a single module rather than a whole course – while still gaining academic credit.

The Irish Times spoke to some key players in the development of modular learning and compiled a guide to everything you need to know about the area and where you can find these courses.

So, what is modular learning?

“Modular courses are short, focused and flexible, designed to help people who cannot commit to full-time higher education courses,” says Dr Ian O’Connor of the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology’s graduate and professional development office.

“They are designed to allow participants build towards a degree of their choice without having to commit to a long-term programme of study. They are suitable for those who wish to upskill in their current role or build their skills to change their career direction. Students can use these offerings as building blocks towards a full award, should they wish.”

How many courses are on offer and who is eligible?

A total of 538 modular courses are on offer across 32 higher education institutes. Some are aimed primarily at postgraduates with a level eight but modular skills provision will provide shorter courses allowing people to gain skills and qualifications without having to take a lot of time out from the labour market. The courses are open to people returning to the workforce, those in employment and recent graduates. There are about 13,000 places available.

What sort of courses do they include?

The courses address a broad range of skills shortages across many disciplines but are primarily focused on areas such as computing and IT, business, digital technologies, health and welfare, tourism and hospitality, data analytics and science. The Higher Education Authority’s website (hea.ie/skills-engagement) has more details. One course, the new 13-week level six certificate in social media marketing, delivered online by IT Sligo from January, will help develop a cohort of people with an in-demand skill set.

Why now?

In the Government’s July stimulus, additional funding of €47.5 million was provided for higher-education skills-related programmes. “These courses will enable people across the country to refresh or reskill in their employment,” says Harris.

The move is seen partially as a response to changes in the workplace and job market caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, including the growth of working from home and the brand-new landscape facing the tourism and hospitality sectors.

A lecturer in IT Sligo delivering a remote class, which can be streamed live or played back.
A lecturer in IT Sligo delivering a remote class, which can be streamed live or played back.

It’s also partially a response to inevitable retraining and upskilling needs caused by a fast-changing economy where robotics and automation are replacing jobs previously carried out by humans, digital and analytics skills are in demand, and learners increasingly demand flexible options that fit around their lifestyles.

Jean Gilligan, head of Springboard at IT Sligo, says they have seen the number of online applications double in the past year. “Few have been unaffected by the changes the global pandemic has brought to the world of work. Across many sectors, future sustainability of jobs is higher up on the agenda.”

Could these replace the traditional degree model?

The short answer: no. “There hasn’t been a shift away from the traditional degree model for school-leavers,” says Dr Vivienne Patterson, head of skills, engagement and statistics with the Higher Education Authority.

“But it will mean that people could decide, for instance, to do a five-credit module on artificial intelligence and, perhaps two years later, a 10-credit module on another topic. Over time, the modules should be built in such a way that someone could gain a full qualification if they wish.”

At the same time, moves are afoot to allow for recognition of prior workplace learning so, for instance, someone who has worked in manufacturing for a number of years would be able to access a third-level course based on their existing skills.

How does Ireland compare internationally on lifelong learning?

The highest rates of participation are in Sweden (58.8 per cent) and Netherlands (57.1 per cent) with Romania and Greece lagging behind at 5.8 and 16 per cent, respectively. Ireland has a 46 per cent adult learning participation rate, with a target of 50 per cent by 2025.

A new report from the Jacques Delors Institute and the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) is pushing for a European-wide individual right to adult learning for all Europeans, which would see training entitlements credited to each person for every hour they work and embed lifelong learning into the labour market and education systems. But, to date, only France has implemented the change.

How much will these courses cost?

With the exception of those returning to the workforce , while all other participants contribute 10 per cent of the course cost.

Where can I find more information?

Information is available from the admissions office of individual universities and institutes of technology. You’ll find a central source of information at hea.ie/skills-engagement, where you can follow a link to download a list of courses.

‘You can attend live classes online or watch the recordings when you can’

Ross McMorrow has spent several years working in engineering, maintenance and technician roles. Now, he is taking on a new online master’s in data science, a sector where there is an acute shortage of skilled professionals. His is a mechatronics technician, so the qualification is a good fit, he says.

Ross McMorrow, a mechatronics technician, is taking on a new online master’s in data science, a sector where there is an acute shortage of skilled professionals.
Ross McMorrow, a mechatronics technician, is taking on a new online master’s in data science, a sector where there is an acute shortage of skilled professionals.

“Because mechatronics involves mechanics, electronics and computing, we are generating a lot of data,” says McMorrow.

“I wanted to be able to understand it better. The course is opening up a world of opportunity for me, particularly with the industry 4.0 movement, which is being described as the ‘fourth wave’ of the industrial revolution and is all about applying ICT skills to industry in such areas as cloud computing, machine learning and the internet of things.”

One part of the course has allowed McMorrow to master skills in Python programming, giving him the ability to extract and manipulate machine data.

“I see the practical application of the skills already. Extracting data from multiple sources and using machine-learning algorithms to predict optimum machine maintenance schedules. Ultimately these skills will help minimise machine downtime and can result in real commercial benefits.”

Committing to education while also balancing work and family commitments was a challenge for McMorrow. But, like a lot of newer courses aimed at upskilling professionals, IT Sligo’s offering works around his timetable, rather than the other way around.

“It is set up so that you can attend live classes online or watch the recordings when you can,” he says. “This way of learning opens up new possibilities for people who want to improve their skills.”

It has been a busy year at IT Sligo. During 2020, applications for online courses have more than doubled. The institute says the growth reflects the few that have been unaffected by the changes of the Covid-19 pandemic to employment and many are seeking to navigate and position themselves better in the rapidly changing workplace.