A Special Report is content that is edited and produced by the Special Reports unit within The Irish Times Content Studio. It is supported by advertisers who may contribute to the report, but who do not have editorial control.

Digital revolution transforming graduate recruitment

Third-level sector faces need to redesign offering to help develop digital dexterity

The disappearance of routine work as tasks are automated has led to a growing need for data dexterity, because data literacy is no longer enough.

The disappearance of routine work as tasks are automated has led to a growing need for data dexterity, because data literacy is no longer enough.


Automation is not just transforming businesses, it is transforming the education and training required by their employees – and their employers.

Digital transformation is having an impact on graduate recruitment in particular, according to Sarah Kieran, a post-doctoral researcher at University of Limerick’s Kemmy School of Business.

She has undertaken research into the future of work, including education, for Skillnet Ireland, the national agency for workforce training.

“No matter what you do now, whether manufacturing, service, or a profession like engineering, everybody’s job has been transformed by the digitisation of work processes,” she says, “but what is the impact of this on people and what are the skill sets they will need to cope?”

A lot of the things that have previously been valued, such as critical thinking, collaboration, flexibility, communications skills and the ability to negotiate and influence have not gone away, but instead have become “more heightened”, she says.

“People now have to use them all the time, because the digital transformation has taken the routine work away.”

She takes the work of a logistics manager by way of example. “Previously he or she could have spent the morning working on a spreadsheet; the afternoon putting together a PowerPoint presentation; and the next morning taking part in a meeting with five people to update them about their findings. Today that is all automated, both the calculations and the visualisation. You just have to log on and see it, so that routine, standard work is disappearing.”

This fact has led to a sharp and growing need for what she terms “data dexterity”, because data literacy is no longer enough.

“When you take away the basic computational work and are presented with the final outcomes instead, you didn’t do the calculations yourself, so you really need to understand the answers and be able to check for anomalies,” she says. To interrogate the data requires employees to have a much greater level of digital skills.

Digital dexterity

That puts pressure on the third-level sector, which must redesign its programmes to ensure all its modules help develop digital dexterity.

Increased automation also requires employers to revise their graduate recruitment programmes.

“The challenge is that a graduate’s usual first job is in administration or inputting data, the boring, cumbersome work that provides graduates with a safe space to learn the ropes and to make mistakes. This routine, standard, repetitive work has also been eroded by digital transformation,” she says.

“Increased automation means organisations can’t expect graduates to hit the ground running, so they are going to have to go back and look at how they onboard graduates. Despite the digital transformation and automation, they now need to go back to basics to create or manufacture safe spaces where people can learn, or connect the two through traineeships and apprenticeships, building greater bridges between education and the workplace.”

The transition is challenging, both for graduates and for organisations. “It’s the paradox of digital transformation – we automate everything because it is so efficient, but what are we losing?” she asks.


Increased automation increases the need for existing staff to upskill too. Many will require a return to education in order to develop digital dexterity, she predicts. A rise in demand for both apprenticeship and other ‘earn as you learn’ style education will require the third-level sector to take a more blended approach to delivery.

That includes not just programmes at graduate level but programmes for senior managers too. “We often talk about the workers on the front line, but our research has shown that leaders are really struggling with the concept of the digitisation of work too,” says Kieran.

UL has just launched a new specialist diploma called Strategic Leadership in the Age of Digital Disruption, delivered in blocks to suit people working full time, using a blend of class lectures and online delivery.

“Covid has accelerated the digital transformation, including through the enablement of remote working,” says Kieran.

“Very many had traditionally had a view of management as a tool of control, that they needed to see people, but employees, particularly women, needed more options. Employers were already used to leveraging digitisation for customers but not for employees. Remote working has been a silver lining of the pandemic.”