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‘Skills will play a key role in how we recover economically’

Skillnet Ireland chief stresses importance of upskilling as businesses adapt to Covid era

Skillnet Ireland has introduced a range of new upskilling programmes to enable owners and managers to adapt their businesses and introduce new ways of operating and working as they respond to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. "Despite the disruption of Covid, the upskilling and skills agenda remained centre stage," says Skillnet Ireland chief executive Paul Healy.

"When we look at our country, we can see that we were never rich in natural resources but we are rich in human capital," he adds. "Look at the metrics in higher-education achievement, we are right up there with the best in Europe. The agility and adaptability of our workforce is also up there at the top internationally. We draw immense strength from our people. But sustaining that advantage requires the ongoing commitment of resources to ensure our workforce remains upskilled and competitive. The skills and capability of our people play a huge role in our economic wellbeing and prosperity."

The importance of human capital will increase in the coming years, he believes. “We could be entering a golden age for skills,” he says. “Skills will play a key role in how we recover economically. We have to upskill and retrain people for what might be a very different economy. We also have to help people to upskill to move into new growth sectors.”

Climate change

He points to three key drivers for the growth in the importance of skills – FDI, digital transformation, and climate change. “Skills play a critical role in defending our open economic model,” says Healy. “We’ve been incredibly successful at attracting FDI and talent is a huge element of our proposition for that. We have to sustain and defend that advantage in the face of growing international competition and in the context of global tax reform. That means doubling down on our talent advantage and investing in it even more.”


The digitisation of business will affect everyone, he contends. “Digital transformation and the changing nature of technology will change people’s lives, businesses and the economy. Emerging technologies like AI, data science, and the blockchain will play an enormous role. Upskilling and talent are key to that transformation. We need to educate, train and upskill people to participate in the digital economy. Also, we have to keep an eye to ensure that no one gets left behind and that every citizen has an opportunity to participate in an increasingly digital working world.”

Talent and skills also have a role to play in climate action. “Climate change and climate action are so pervasive, there isn’t a sector or a business of any size that won’t be impacted by them,” Healy explains. “And there won’t be a single citizen who isn’t affected.”

This calls for major investment in talent and skills to seize on the opportunities that the green and sustainable economy presents, he adds. “Of course, it brings with it disruption and challenges but there are opportunities for growth as well. We need to provide people with the skills they need for successful careers in the green economy.”

Healy points out that Skillnet Ireland exists to deliver against those challenges and opportunities. “2020 was a really challenging year but Skillnet Ireland really showed its agility and ability to respond at speed. The industry-led nature of our programmes really came to the fore. We supported more than 21,000 business and almost 82,000 workers during the year. That was a new record for us.

“Very importantly, 94 per cent of the businesses supported are SMEs. SMEs typically don’t have access to the resources and the training and HR budgets that large companies do. It is important for the State to provide support where those resources are lacking.”

That will support the economic objective of increasing the productivity of Irish SMEs which currently lags behind that of SMEs in other countries. “There is a direct link between greater productivity and talent and innovation. We are helping small enterprises to boost their productivity through training and upskilling.”


He is optimistic for the future. “As the economy reopens and we move out of the necessary public health restrictions, there will be opportunities on a number of fronts. Notwithstanding the impact on sectors and employees providing customer-facing services there are quite tangible grounds for optimism.”

One of those grounds is the level of household savings built up during 2020. “The CSO said that gross household saving increased by €1.472 billion to €12.92 billion in the year. Those savings will lead to increased spending and consumption in the domestic economy.”

Another is the response of businesses themselves. “An unintended consequence of the pandemic is that a lot of businesspeople have taken the time to step back and look at how to get businesses ready for the new landscape. They are addressing issues like digital transformation. That will assist their recovery. We are also seeing one of the greatest ever investments in training by the State under the Department of Further and Higher Education. The Government is stepping up to invest in skills to help progress their careers.”

This is in turn supporting Skillnet Ireland’s objective of engaging the entire working population in the conversation on lifelong learning. “Skills will be the unifying factor in our recovery,” Healy adds. “We need to build out and double down on our competitive advantage by leveraging our people and their immense potential. In line with our strategy, we plan to increase the number of businesses supported by Skillnet Ireland to 30,000 annually by 2025. We will also provide supports to 100,000 workers annually by that time and double the investment in the upskilling of the Irish workforce to €100 million annually.”

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times