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Helping Irish SMEs address the skills gap they face in a changing world of work

Skillnet Ireland is aiming to work with 30,000 small and medium-sized businesses by 2025

Skillnet Ireland chief executive Paul Healy: ‘We help industry become more competitive by giving companies access to the skills they require.’

Launched yesterday, Skillnet Ireland's new Statement of Strategy is based on the three pillars of workforce design, people development and strategic innovation. "Workforce design is about understanding what skills and capabilities you already have in your workforce, what you will need for the future, and address any gaps between the two," explains Skillnet Ireland chairman Brendan McGinty.

“People development is about enabling companies to improve their overall performance and business outcomes through talent development while enabling employees to learn and grow and meet their career ambitions,” he continues.

The strategic innovation pillar will help Irish SMEs address the productivity gap they face when competing with larger enterprises. “We know that is one of the biggest challenges for them. We are already working with about 18,000 SMEs every year and we expect to increase that to 30,000 by 2025. We want to help companies to work with their employees to generate new ideas and put them into action in order to improve future performance.”

Innovation is even more important in the context of the imperative for businesses to transform. “Business in all areas are facing the challenge of transforming business models and business proposition and the need to sustain themselves with an eye to coming out the other end, recovering, investing and growing again,” says McGinty.


Lifelong learning culture

“In our view, we need to do a number of things extremely well to meet that challenge,” he adds. “We need to build on the lifelong learning culture in Ireland. We made a good start on that in the last number of years, but we need to get even better and more ambitious. We need to create a situation where workers are encouraged and enabled to reskill and upskill and that this becomes business as usual for employers. Digital learning must be accepted as the norm for training and learning delivery. It is important for Irish business to double down on digital upskilling. We know if we do that well it can have a transformative effect on business performance.”

Skillnet Ireland chief executive Paul Healy emphasises the importance of innovation. "Skillnet Ireland operates at the intersection of Government and business sector and plays an important role in the innovation ecosystem," he says. "We work with Government, educational institutions and industry groups to help businesses identify their training and skills needs. Skillnet Ireland is at the centre of this triple helix which enables collaboration and expedites the development of new initiatives that meet business needs. We bring the stakeholders together to collaborate on meeting the complex challenges of today's workforce."

This is an area in which Skillnet Ireland excels, he adds. “We help industry become more competitive by giving companies access to the skills they require, and we help workers take advantage of new opportunities by enabling them to retrain and upskill.”

Healy points to the customer experience sector as an example of this. “Ireland is a centre of excellence for this industry which has seen a lot of transformation and change in recent years with the introduction of AI and automation technologies. Skillnet Ireland has done research into what this means for skills and we are using that to provide new skills training programmes for people in roles which are vulnerable to those changes. This will allow those people to move into more knowledge-based roles or into other sectors which require their skills.”

Changing world

The healthcare sector provides another very topical example of an innovative Skillnet Ireland programme. "One of our partners is the Leading Healthcare Providers Skillnet," says Healy. "We worked with them and UCC on a postgraduate certificate in infection prevention and control designed to stop the spread of infection in nursing homes. This was a direct, rapid response to the spread of Covid-19 in the private nursing home sector."

“We are helping Irish businesses to be more innovative, resilient and adaptable to a changing world,” McGinty adds. “For example, we have been working with Government to help businesses prepare for Brexit by delivering the Clear Customers initiative. This online programme will train up to 2,500 workers in customs clearance by the end of the year. That will turn out to be very significant in the country’s Brexit preparations.”

Looking to the future. Healy says Skillnet Ireland is going to quadruple its investment in innovation-themed workforce projects over the next four years. “At the moment, we support and fund 25 of them each year and we are going to increase that to 100. We will support projects that address a future skill or emerging skill need where there is a gap in provision.”

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times