‘It’s about being agile with your qualifications’

Further Education Colleges seeing greater interest in pandemic-related courses

It was on St Patrick's Day, a little more than a fortnight after the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in the Republic, that the Health Service Executive issued its recruitment call with the message: "Your country needs you."

The “Be on call for Ireland” initiative was introduced when the crisis on these shores was still very much coming down the tracks. Various arms of the State could see what was taking place in other countries: hospitals and health settings overrun and unthinkable death tolls.

The plan here was much the same as it was everywhere else that had the luxury of this crystal ball-like vista of how the virus behaved and the efficacy of different public policy approaches to tackling it.

Cases had to be spread out over a long period of time so hospitals had the resources and the personnel to treat patients. Failure to achieve that would likely lead to catastrophic losses.

But the State’s call to arms at the time of perhaps its greatest need was not limited to expat or former healthcare workers. Indeed, most of the 73,000 people who answered the call were not healthcare professionals at all, the HSE later confirmed.

A similar pattern has since emerged in the further education and training sector where special courses have been designed for people who also want to do their bit. Other courses that were already available but related to the pandemic have also seen an uptick in interest.

Solas, the State agency charged with developing the sector, moved quickly, opening up its eCollege online learning portal to the public for free. It was previously free only to those who were unemployed. Most than 12,000 people have since signed up for courses.

"That remains open to everyone," says Solas spokeswoman Maria Walsh. "It's been huge. I know the infection control course was one that was quite popular during the shutdown.

“Secondly, some of the Education and Training Boards (ETBs) would have designed specific courses in response to the pandemic. For example, digital skills for remote working or online working, infection prevention and control courses.

“We also have Skills to Compete, which is an initiative that is in development at the moment. Some courses are available and more are coming on stream in September. That’s being designed specifically around reskilling and retraining in response to Covid.”

Pandemic-related courses

Dr Rory O'Sullivan, principal of Killester College of Further Education, is expecting a greater degree of interest in pandemic-related courses.

“The kinds of courses that would be of interest would be those that are connected with the medical services, such as nursing and pre-nursing studies,” he says. “We have a course in pre-emergency services or pre-paramedic would be another.

“In fairness, the frontline workers – rightly so – have gotten a very good profile, so that can often give a boost to the attractiveness of courses leading to those areas.”

Cecilia Munro, principal of Ballyfermot College of Further Education, says there has been "huge interest" in courses such as infection control, nursing and social care. This, "even after all the challenges people have been facing in that sector over Covid-19".

“You hear a lot of about the horror show in relation to Covid-19 and caring for people, particularly the elderly in care-home settings, but that type of work is on the increase,” she says. “There seems to be a lot of interest in it and it’s a growing industry.

“There’s a huge sector of society who live and breathe being frontline workers. They want to be firemen, paramedics, to work in a hospital. They have a caring nature.

“Most definitely, Covid-19 has been in no shape or form anything glamorous, but it did glamorise to a certain extent the necessity and the solution-focused employment in that area.”

On the other side of the coin, Munro says business related courses have dropped off significantly.

“Retail has taken a huge hit,” she says. “Where we would have level five and level six courses in retail selling, people are not interested in that anymore because all they see around them is shops closing down.”

The bottom line as people adapt to the new Covid-19 reality, according to Munro, is to be “adaptable and agile”.

“They have to be able to transfer their skillset from one place to another,” she says. “Just because you’re an accountant, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have good communication skills.

“Because if you do, you could take your accountancy background and transfer it into being a band manager or a group manager and you still have your accountancy skills and you can be agile.

“That’s the forefront of Covid-19: it’s about being agile with your qualifications and about being able to take that qualification and transfer those skills with confidence to other areas you can work in.”

Laois Offaly ETB also offers a number of pandemic-related courses. Tony Dalton, its director of further education and training, says they "initially ran some courses for people who wanted to answer the HSE call".

“But what we’ve since done is start to modify them for people who want to go back into industry, whether that be hospitality or even retail, looking at what controls they need to put in place to allow them return to work.”

Infection prevention

The first of the courses in Laois Offaly is in infection prevention and control. The course has had 130 participants with three-quarters of these progressing to employment in a healthcare setting.

The programme was devised following consultation with the hospitals in the midlands about what supports were required both in the short and long term in reducing the impact of Covid-19 on families and communities.

Recently, the programme has been further developed to support people who are returning to work in other sectors including retail and hospitality. The hospitality sector was one of the sectors most affected by Covid-19 in the Laois and Offaly area.

"In light of the pandemic, one sector that continues to grow in the midlands is bio-pharma," says Dalton. "We recently opened the Midlands Skills Centre in Tullamore providing the highest spec cleanroom training facility in the country.

“To date, the facility has been providing programmes for current bio-pharma employees, and new entrants who wish to begin a career path in the sector.

"Options include full-time laboratory technician courses linked directly to degree programmes in Athlone Institute of Technology, or shorter employment-focused courses such as introduction to cleanroom operations and introduction to the bio-processing industry, both scheduled for September."

Laois Offaly has also developed a number of remote working programmes in direct response to the pandemic to support businesses and employees in adapting to the “new normal”.

Remote Work Ready is designed to equip learners with the skills necessary to work effectively in a remote setting. The interactive online classes use applications such as Zoom and Slack which facilitate peer-to-peer learning. To date, five courses with 94 participants have successfully been rolled out.


The Leading Remote Teams course is designed for managers new to remote leadership or looking to optimise productivity and promote a positive culture.

The programme covers the fundamental skills needed to lead distributed teams which include remote culture, communication, conflict management, performance management and change management. To date, three programmes with 50 participants are ongoing.

“Those have really taken off, and they’re fully online,” says Dalton. “I know we were all thrust into working remotely, but it’s about making the most of your time and how to work best remotely.

“The other one is, of which there was huge uptake from both private industry and the public sector, is about leading remotely. How to maintain a leadership role when your team is all based at home and working off laptops.

“That’s as much about helping people to understand how to work as well as ensuring their mental wellbeing is good, that they’re looking after themselves too. It’s kind of a broad programme.

“It effectively allows your business to continue to operate and your business model to continue to be successful but also looking after your staff team, and maintaining that approach when everyone is isolated. We’re had huge uptake on all of those courses.”

‘New normal’

In Tralee, John Herlihy, admissions officer at Kerry College, says a new business support unit was established at its Monavalley Campus in response to the pandemic. So far, 5000 people have availed of its training programmes.

“Business around Kerry were eager to ensure that their staff were trained in infection prevention, hygiene and cleanliness and dealing with customers in this new normal,” says Herlihy.

“This was important for business to have done while Kerry were busy trying to build up its economy which relies heavily on tourists.”

Some of the programmes offered include: Principles of Hygiene & PPE; First Aid Responder – Pre-Hospital Emergency Care Council; Infection Prevention & Control; Safe Stay – for the Hospitality sector; and Managing Compliance for Covid-19. The college is also launching a new programme called Sanitation and Sterilisation. All programmes are free of charge.

“The online infection prevention and control course is something that every Irish citizen should do to prevent and manage the spread of infection, viruses and illness within the home, community or work,” says Herlihy.


“The skills learned on these courses can be used at home and in the workplace. We also find that at a time where people have felt isolated and cut off from their families, friends, colleagues and the wider community – connecting through a training programmes is helpful.

“These skills are transversal, which means that are not job or sector specific but may be used in a wide variety of settings. Once employees in all industries start moving back into the workplace I imagine that we will have a huge uptake again on these courses.

“The focus is to ensure that organisations and their staff are primed and ready to go when our economy starts to move again.”

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson is an Irish Times reporter