Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 8 December 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation
Skills Needed to Support the Economic Recovery Plan: Discussion
I welcome the members of the committee who are participating in today's meeting in line with the exceptional circumstances and measures we must take during the Covid-19 pandemic. I appreciate everybody's help in this situation. Members are required to participate in this meeting remotely and from within the Leinster House complex only.
This meeting will consider the skills required to support the economic recovery plan. Since the beginning of last year, the economy has had to deal with the impact of both the Covid-19 pandemic and the departure of the UK from the EU. Following the restrictions that were put in place to protect our public health, businesses have seen huge shifts in trading patterns, as well as difficulties in supply chains and increases in the cost of energy and materials. In addition, we have seen huge disruption in the labour force which has caused the displacement of labour in many sectors and a lack of availability of skills in other sectors. The issue has been raised in a range of the committee's discussions in the past year, particularly in recent months. To assist the committee to gain a better understanding of the issues, I am pleased to welcome from the expert group on future skills needs, Mr. Tony Donohoe, chair, and Dr. Alan Power.
Before we start, I wish to explain some limitations to parliamentary privilege in the practice of the Houses as regards references witnesses may make to other persons in their evidence. The evidence of witnesses physically present or who give evidence from within the parliamentary precincts is protected, pursuant to both the Constitution and statute, by absolute privilege. However, today's witnesses are giving their evidence remotely from a place outside the parliamentary precincts and, as such, may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness physically present. Witness have already been advised that they may think it is appropriate to take legal advice on this.
Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction.
The opening statements have been circulated to members. I invite Mr. Donohoe to make his opening remarks on behalf of the expert group.
Mr. Tony Donohoe:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to address it on the important issue of the skills needed to support delivery of the economic recovery plan. As the committee will be aware, the expert group on future skills needs, EGFSN, is the independent body tasked with advising the Government on the current and future skills needs of the Irish economy. In developing its work programme, the EGFSN always seeks to align with and support the delivery of key national policy objectives. In its recent work, the group has examined some of the major themes of the economic recovery plan, for example, the structural shifts created by digital transformation and the decarbonisation of Ireland’s economy; the need to enhance the performance of Ireland’s SME sector; the creation of an innovative knowledge economy; the expansion and diversification of Ireland’s international trade post Brexit; and the need to address Ireland’s housing and infrastructural requirements. As detailed in the background briefing document provided to committee members, a range of skills has been identified by the EGFSN as key to delivering on these objectives.
To enable and effectively exploit the spread of digital transformation across all sectors of the economy digital literacy and skills need to be a core workforce competency. They are also needed to support broader social inclusion. Older workers in particular will need to be assisted in acquiring these skill sets. Further enhancing Ireland’s pool of high-level ICT talent will also be central to driving digital transformation. This includes the skills involved in designing, building, implementing and maintaining the integrity of high-level ICT systems. Measures to enhance the pipeline of students from second level, in particular female students, are needed to secure a greater domestic supply of these skills, which are currently complemented by a pool of international talent.
To address Ireland’s climate action targets, there will also have to be an increase in technical decarbonisation skills as well as broader environmental knowledge across the enterprise base. In its most recent report, the EGFSN has forecast a significant increase in demand for skills across wind and solar energy generation as well as residential retrofits. Employment will have to triple in wind and solar power projects and quadruple in residential retrofits. This will create demand across engineering, environmental science and legal-professional roles, as well as in construction, retrofits and electric vehicle maintenance.
Our climate action commitments will in turn create further demand for skills across built environment activities in order to deliver on our infrastructural and new housing requirements. To meet the Housing for All targets, by 2025 the workforce involved in new builds will have to increase by 70% over 2020 levels and double by 2028. This level of demand emphasises the need for the construction sector in particular to address issues around its attractiveness to new entrants and the acute gender imbalance in its workforce.
The expansion and diversification of Ireland’s international trade, at least from a goods trade perspective, will heighten the demand for logistics and supply chain management skills. These are needed to ensure the orderly and competitive distribution of trade between Ireland and overseas markets. Again, however, a poor and unattractive image of the sector, as well as a lack of awareness of its employment opportunities, need to be addressed to meet this demand.
The third pillar of the economic recovery plan, that is, rebuilding sustainable enterprises, addresses the supports and polices needed to make enterprises more resilient, particularly in the SME sector. Improving productivity is one of the most important issues for SMEs in Ireland. The EGFSN analysis has demonstrated how management development and the adoption of world-class management practices are key levers for achieving that. This research has highlighted some of the barriers, but also the opportunities that exist for Irish SMEs to improve their performance through greater investment in targeted, high-quality management training and development.
The economic recovery plan also highlights how disruptive macro trends, including accelerations in automation and digitalisation, are redefining business models. In 2017, the EGFSN acknowledged that design thinking is critical in dealing with disruption, adding strategic value, creativity and innovation from the earliest stages of development through to the final delivery of products and services. Since then, the group has developed, and is helping to implement, key recommendations on digital, product and strategic design. Meanwhile, the ability of Irish enterprise, and Ireland more generally, to operate and advance its interests in an increasingly globalised world, rests on the languages agenda and the greater cultural awareness skills that accompany it. The importance of enhancing Ireland's pool of language skills from a comparatively low base, as identified by the EGFSN, directly resulted in the development of Ireland's ten-year strategy for foreign languages, Languages Connect.
Apart from these key skills areas, there will also be a need for a range of transversal or so-called softer skills to be embedded across the workforce development programmes to support the resilience of workers in the labour market, their readiness for ongoing engagement with lifelong learning pathways and their adaptation to changes in job roles as digital transformation and decarbonisation progress. These include the capacity for critical thinking and analysis, problem solving, and communications and leadership, which are attributes that are critical in a constantly evolving and increasingly blended working environment where teamwork and communication are key.
I welcome any questions and I thank the committee for the opportunity to discuss the important issue of how, from a skills perspective, we can deliver on the economic recovery plan.
I thank Mr. Donohoe. I now invite members to discuss the issue with the expert group. As everybody is attending remotely, I remind those who wish to speak to use the raise hand function and, more important, when finished speaking, to take it down. The first speaker is Deputy Louise O'Reilly.
I thank the witnesses for their time and I thank Mr. Donohoe for his opening statement. I have a few questions, which I will try to get through as quickly as I can. As I have only 14 minutes, and I would like the opportunity to come back in again, I will keep my questions brief, but I hope that the witnesses contributions will be lengthy which, I am sure, will please anybody watching these proceedings.
In his opening statement, Mr. Donohoe referred to the importance of enhancing Ireland's pool of language skills from a comparatively low base and he referenced the ten-year strategy for foreign languages. I ask him to elaborate on the following. Have targets been set? Are they linked specifically to jobs and, if so, to what types of jobs are they linked? Enhancing a foreign language skills base is a good idea. I am not disputing that, but if the purpose of that is only to educate people for low-wage jobs in call centres, I would question that somewhat. Is it a value added thing? What is going on there? Have targets been set and specific languages identified and are they linked to particular jobs or growth areas? How does that work?
Mr. Tony Donohoe:
I thank the Deputy. I will make some general comments before inviting in my colleague, Dr. Power, who represents the group on the languages strategy implementation group. Generally, there are targets. There are targets in terms of leaving certificate attainment and the number of graduates coming out of higher education. In regard to the question around value added, when it comes to languages it is often a case of we do not know what we do not know. They are critical for our industrial strategy. In a Brexit context, most of our SME indigenous companies tend, or have tended, to be reliant on the UK in particular and English speaking markets. Owing to the trade diversification challenges, we will have to go out and look for much broader languages. Companies might purchase in their own language, but they sell in their customers' language. This is a key competitive advantage. It is sometimes difficult to quantify. We know that in call centres and, to an extent, in foreign direct investment, FDI, languages are in demand. Often, FDI companies tend to use their own global networks to recruit language specialists and native speakers.
In terms of our industrial strategy, it is a question of diversification of markets. We do have some graduate programmes. IBEC has a global graduates programme, as does Enterprise Ireland, where young graduates with language skills go out and develop new markets. Dr. Power may have more to say in terms of direction or targets.
Dr. Alan Power:
I thank the Deputy. Mr. Donohoe has pre-empted much of what I was going to say in terms of the key graduate programmes out there, in particular the IBEC programme. Enterprise Ireland has the GradStart programme, under which it provides 70% subsidisation for the hiring of a person with language skills to put into firms so that Ireland can focus directly on internationalisation. When Languages Connect was being developed, Enterprise Ireland informed the target languages that would best serve Ireland's trade interests. There are a range of languages, including the traditional modern languages in a European sense such as Portuguese and, also, Korean, Japanese, Mandarin, Arabic and so on.
It is particularly important for the indigenous firms that are more regionally dispersed and more focused on the UK market to expand their horizons. That is very much in tandem with the eurozone strategy that Enterprise Ireland is trying to promote at the moment. In terms of those firms in the Irish economy that are more globally focused, they would tend to be in the foreign direct investment sector. They need levels of language competency that are very much of native level proficiency and so they tend to import that level of proficiency indirectly. The last survey that was done in Ireland in early 2010 showed that only 20% of the Irish population are comfortable speaking another language other than English. It is with a view to expanding that pool.
I am sure Mr. Donohoe will agree that many firms do not know what they do not know, especially in the SME sector. Enterprise Ireland is actively trying to promote the adoption of languages as a key skills set. In certain surveys that we are conducting at the moment, it is coming up as a key issue as these firms are trying to expand further into the eurozone market and into markets further afield. It is the old adage as well that one can have a first meeting in English in overseas markets, but one will not necessarily get a second. One needs to show that respect and to have the cultural awareness and recognition of those nuances, which one only really gets through having somebody who has the requisite kind of languages in the firm.
There is a lot of promotional work ongoing at present, but we are dealing with a significant cultural issue. Traditionally, in terms of our emigration outlets, it has always been to the English speaking world. We are expanding more in the context of the destinations people go to now. It will be a slow burner, but work is actively going on at present to try to expand the enterprise base.
Mr. Donohoe referred to Brexit. Is he aware of work done to identify the trade voids that currently exist and were created following Britain's exit from the EU and the Single Market? Trying to identify and fill those voids would be a good way for us to begin the job of expansion. Will he elaborate on that and the potential to mitigate against shocks to our economy, if we can diversify into that and fill those trade voids?
Mr. Tony Donohoe:
As the Deputy will be aware, this is evolving. We are seeing the statistics in terms of slower exports to the UK in particular. From a skills perspective, we have a logistics and transport supply chain group. One of the most remarkable development over the past two years of the pandemic is how robust our supply chains have been, particularly to supermarkets. Apart from early blips, when people decided they needed to buy pasta and toilet rolls, we have managed to keep supermarkets very well stocked. That is a testimony to existing supply chains. This is not about trade voids as such, but it is the challenges around skills. Something that has been well publicised in the UK and that we identified in recent years is shortages of heavy goods vehicle, HGV, drivers. It is an ageing occupation and it is difficult to attract younger people into it. More generally, we have classified 14 different occupations in logistics and supply chains. There is a big job of work to be done to make this sector more attractive and to develop awareness from an earlier age. That is the challenge. It is not only going out and finding new markets; it is also ensuring our inward supply chains are functioning efficiently. Dr. Power might want to add something to that.
Dr. Alan Power:
The most topical issue is probably the shortage of HGV drivers. That has been impacted. This is an issue the EGFSN identified as far back as 2015. It has been impacted by Brexit and the recurrence of growth in eastern Europe, with many of the drivers who would have fulfilled those roles have gone back home, as well as the Covid pandemic. The key thing is that we always differentiate between a skills shortage and a labour market shortage. It is not necessarily a shortage of people with the skills necessary to do it. Essentially there are not enough people who want to fulfil these roles. Prevention is vitally important but at the same time it is a tough sell and that feeds into some of the negative stereotypes that exist around transport occupations.
A lot of work needs to be done to professionalise the sector. That is one of the key ambitions of the logistics and supply chain skills group, which is chaired by the Department of Transport and includes industry representation. There have been a number of skills initiatives taken to expand the pool. There has been the traineeship for HGVs which has been delivered by the Irish Road Haulage Association, IRHA, and, importantly, a new commercial drivers apprenticeship programme will come on stream that has been co-ordinated by Freight Transport Association Ireland. They are about the longer term in trying to change perceptions around that role. As it stands, we will be reliant on migration to fill that skills gap. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment recently removed the quota for HGV drivers to try to ameliorate that in the short to medium term.
We cannot ignore the elephant in the room. Wages are a big issue in that sector. It is not necessarily that the employment is unattractive. At various stages in the recent past it was a very attractive role. People say the money would not pay them. Lowering the bar and widening the pool and changing the rules around what licences are acceptable is a sticking plaster. If we have a long-term problem, we need to ensure those workers are paid decent wages. Nothing else will attract and retain workers beyond that. We can fix everything else but if that is not dealt with, we will have an issue. We should be talking not only for that sector but for all sectors about moving to a living wage, because that is one of the greatest ballasts we could have against any future shocks.
We had the National Competitiveness and Productivity Council before us a number of weeks ago. It referenced the detrimental impact our housing crisis is having across every sector. Let us not get into what created the housing crisis - we know where it came from - however, it is a serious issue now. Do the witnesses know of the potential economic damage being caused by our current housing crisis, and what impact does that have now and in the medium term?
Mr. Tony Donohoe:
We do not have statistics on that and we have not surveyed companies on it. I know anecdotally, particularly from the leads in many of the foreign direct investment, FDI, companies, that housing is a huge issue in mobility and attracting people as well as retaining them. I do not have any statistics for the Deputy. I am not sure if it has been surveyed, but it is probably something that should be surveyed. An area where we have other challenges is getting people to build these houses. We are looking at 33,000 housing units in the Housing for All strategy. We currently have approximately 40,000 workers on new builds. We need an additional 25,000 units in the next five years and that will peak at 80,000 by the end of the strategy. Apart from its overall impact on the economy, on the Deputy's previous point around wages, it feeds into higher wages ultimately and thereby a serious competitiveness issue. There is the other issue of finding workers to build this stock and this will be exacerbated by our very necessary climate action plan. We tend to fish in the same pool for those construction and construction related skills. Does Dr. Power have anything to add to that?
Dr. Alan Power:
At the height of the boom, in 2006 or 2007, the CSO published a national survey on the allocation of personal public service numbers to foreign nationals, which it does every couple of years. In 2006-07, I think 50,000 foreign nationals were involved in the construction sector. In 2017-18, that figure was approximately 20,000 and we are finding that they are increasingly coming from what is defined as the EU25-EU27 countries. Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania were the traditional skills pool that we were drawing on prior to the crash. There is less propensity for Polish workers in particular to come to the Irish market now. They are challenging. We have the Housing for All targets as Mr. Donohoe outlined. We need to quadruple employment for residential retrofitting. That figure does not even include commercial retrofitting and public sector retrofitting.
We have other ambitions under Project Ireland 2040. It will require a major drive to enhance the attractiveness of construction careers in the domestic economy to make sure that we have a stable pipeline.
Regarding the impact of the crash-----
I thank Dr. Donohoe and Dr. Power for their time this morning and the expert group for a very good briefing document. As we are aware, SMEs face increasingly competitive markets, especially those in certain sectors such as retail. In the global world that we live in, it is difficult for SMEs to survive and grow. I note that the background briefing highlights upskilling management and digital capacity in SMEs as being particularly important, which is correct. I appreciate that there are various plans and strategies in place to try to achieve this goal and assist SMEs. I am wondering whether there is any insight into how effective these efforts are proving. Are data available about how many SMEs are engaging?
Mr. Tony Donohoe:
The Leading the Way strategy was the first time that we addressed this in quite a long time, since the SME task force ten or 15 years ago. It was published in 2020. It is relatively early days to see how many SMEs are engaging. There is a multitude of programmes, which is part of the challenge. There is an issue with motivation because SMEs do not necessarily have the time or resources to engage with training. They also might not see the point of training. Those of us who are involved in skills or education see upskilling as a necessary good. SMEs are preoccupied with meeting the challenges facing companies and looking for opportunities to develop. Their customers and staff are their primary concerns. There is a challenge with inserting upskilling into their considerations. Multinationals tend to understand this and have fairly sophisticated strategies in place. It is a matter of getting busy owner-managers in particular to engage with this.
To answer the Senator's question, we have an SME skills task force, which is chaired by the representative groups. It is addressing the matter of awareness. The first tangible work from it is an online benchmarking tool. Skillnet has been working on it. An SME can benchmark and get a basic training or skills need analysis for the business and link it to business strategies. This is the first step on that journey. Later, it can be linked to the appropriate training interventions. This is a cultural shift as much as anything else. The education and training sector has not helped itself with the language that it uses about upskilling, learning outcomes, and other technical language. We need to translate this into a business language that owner-managers can link to their business strategies.
I am conscious that I have not answered Senator Crowe's question about numbers directly. I ask Dr. Power if there are any numbers about engagement.
Dr. Alan Power:
I would not know them offhand. Enterprise Ireland undertakes a comprehensive Spotlight on Skills workshop in the regions. It works with its client companies to try to communicate the importance of clients understanding the importance of skills within their firms. Some of that will touch on management and development as well.
I thank the witnesses. When they have gathered the data, they might give the percentage of SMEs that are engaging. It would be helpful. The background briefing highlights the employer's place in improving soft skills for graduates or new entrants to the jobs market. I notice recent comments from Dr. Donohoe. He referred to the leaving certificate and the points race. There are significant issues and, at this stage, it might not be fit for purpose. Dr. Donohoe said that the focus on rote learning was not aiding the assistance or development of these soft skills at secondary level. Will he expand on that, please?
Mr. Tony Donohoe:
Regarding the importance of soft skills, the term "soft skills" is probably the wrong one to use because they are hard skills to acquire and to embed in training programmes in a tangible way. There is much rhetoric around them but defining them and making them a reality is more of a challenge. As the Senator suggests, this goes back to the education system. All education and training are part of a continuum. The competences that employers are looking for are developed in the education system. As the Senator said, the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science was looking at leaving certificate reform last week. We provided evidence at it. We think that an over-reliance on a terminal examination, which is the leaving certificate, does not give the space or motivation to develop these soft skills, including creativity, analytical thinking, empathy, communication, teamwork and so on. The most important one of all is learning to learn and developing an appetite for learning. If a school experience is dictated by a high-stakes terminal examination, it is more likely to extinguish that appetite for learning.
Why do employers and businesses more generally look for this? We are in a world of ongoing upskilling. This, and reskilling, will be a fact of life in the workplace. That appetite and spirit of inquiry is developed at a leaving certificate level. We do have surveys. The most recent was published in 2019 by the Higher Education Authority and SOLAS. It was about employers' views of graduates, which are favourable, by and large. Some 84% of employers were either satisfied or very satisfied with graduate quality, however quality can be defined in the context of education and training. That survey highlighted the potential absence that the Senator alludes to with regard to employability and softer skills. Employers also pointed out that 20% had occupations or roles coming up in the next five years that they were not confident that they could fill, which would require much reskilling within their workforces.
I thank the witnesses for the presentation. This year we have around 70,000 graduates from higher education and about 40,000 graduates from further education. That is 110,000. Over the next five years, we can expect more than 500,000 people to come out of third level, higher and further education. How effective are the policy tools now in place to shift the shape of that to provide these new skills? It seems to me that the people who decide what gets taught are not people like the witnesses who are scanning the horizon for skills. How do we change that?
I think Irish enterprise is hopeless at having skills training in its four walls or sponsoring it. While Mr. Donohoe says we need a cultural shift, can significant policy changes also be made? We had 1,300 graduates three years ago and the Minister for higher education is now looking for 10,000. With regard to traineeships, we are again looking for more. General upskilling by enterprise is in its own interest. Surely we can do more than wait for culture to change in this arena. What are the policy tools we might adopt? Without lifelong learning, these enterprises will not thrive.
I return to Senator Crowe's point on the leaving certificate. The OECD was blunt in saying we are preparing people for second-rate jobs by continuing with the present leaving certificate. Mr. Donohoe articulates the poor image many of the growth sectors we look to for the future have within schoolgoing children and, particularly, women. What level of urgency do the witnesses attribute to change in this arena?
I have been hearing talk about the need for better Irish management and design capacity since I entered politics, which was not today nor yesterday. Why has it not happened? These look like easy things to do. They are not big tranches of skill base to be created.
Does our migration policy need to change? Have we got it right at the moment in terms of the prospects ahead?
Mr. Tony Donohoe:
I thank the Deputy. First, I will speak on supply capture by the education system. All education systems across the globe are to a degree driven by supply. They tend to be slow in response, sometimes for legitimate reasons. In business we tend to be impatient at the seed of change and the flexibility displayed by the education system but the supply capture is inherent.
That is being addressed at different levels through Government-supported incentives. I offer some examples which I think are particularly interesting and good. There is the technology skills action programme, where numbers are put on the annual outputs of graduates required in high-level areas and what needs to happen under that programme to encourage it. That includes increasing the female supply, as the Deputy mentioned, particularly at second level, where girls have tended not to go into programmes like computer science. Incentivisation through programming will encourage schools and, particularly, higher and further education.
The human capital initiative funded through the national training fund has some interesting, innovative new programmes. One which I am familiar with is the introduction of microcredentials. One way in which the education system has tended not to respond is that education has tended to be available at fixed times of the year, on fixed days of the weeks, for fixed hours in the day and programmes have been of fixed length. The introduction of flexibility and the acquisition of learning in smaller amounts at a time which suits the learner and the employer is probably urgently required. Microcredentials are now the commonly accepted way to do that. Longer courses are divided into bite-sized pieces of learning. All the Irish universities are part of a project to introduce microcredentials. I think that is an exciting development but there are others. There are skills conversion programmes, Springboard, etc. These are sometimes on the margins in the context of the numbers of graduates the Deputy referenced, but they are important interventions.
On skills training in the workplace, it is the motivation and making the case, as I mentioned in our SME conversation, for employers to provide the skills. I do not think we can talk about business in a generic sense here. It is much more a small, medium-size company issue. Larger companies with more sophisticated HR strategies tend to do this. With regard to making this available, members will be aware of and we are a supporter of the Skillnet programme. It is an example of best in class and something I have spoken to international audiences about. It is where groups of employers come together, define their skills requirements as a sector, usually, or sometimes in a region, and then source training. They are co-funded, which means employers have skin in the game and are quite engaged. Expansion of that type of initiative is likely to encourage employers to upskill.
On the urgency around the leaving certificate, this comes up every decade. I do not think there has been huge urgency. Some but not enough progress has been made at junior certificate level to develop these types of learning. Because of the popularity of the leaving certificate in the Irish consciousness and vested interests, the speed of change has been incredibly and frustratingly slow.
Would Dr. Power like to take up the Deputy's question on migration?
Dr. Alan Power:
In 2018 or 2019, the then Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation published the review of economic migration policy. There is a new set-up in place with the interdepartmental group on economic migration whereby for the biannual review of the employment permits lists, an interdepartmental group meets, including representatives of various Departments. Submissions come in via private submission by industry representative organisations or are made by the Department which is the lead for the sector. They make the case and provide the evidence to say something is urgent and certain measures have to be introduced. Liberalisation of the list would help enhance that. To ensure it is firmly and robustly evidence-based and responding to an economic need, it is good that, for instance, the Department of Health will be there for certain construction submissions or the Department of Transport for anything in the logistics field. The reforms put in place off the back of that review have definitely enhanced the responsiveness of the system.
Again, however, as for ensuring the longer term sustainability of the skills supply, we need to ensure that whatever skills we seek to import, we put in place the measures to ensure we build up a secure supply of those skills at the same time.
Good. I thank our guests for being here and for their presentation. They have covered so much. I noticed that recently they had a paper on climate change, much of which had to do with technology, electric cars and so on. Have they looked at all at the challenges posed by rising sea levels and the kinds of skills we might need in the future to deal with that? I have here a book by John Englander, Moving to Higher Ground. I am not sure if I can show it. It is frightening reading in that it shows that in the next 30 or 40 years the seas will rise one or two metres, depending on what happens, no matter what we do. I put it to the witnesses that we will need a whole new set of skills to deal with that, whether to put up all kinds of sea defences, to move to higher ground or whatever else. They might comment on that, please, because it is one of those things that is put on the long finger and that people are not talking about, although I know that the Dutch are doing a lot of work on this area. They would, of course. They recognise the danger and the challenges. If the seas rise by a metre in the near future, that will lead to much of cities such as Cork, Dublin, Galway, Limerick and Wexford being under water, and there is nothing we can do about it. No matter what we do now regarding the warming of the earth, the damage is already done and the sea is already rising. That is what I have read in many publications.
Has the expert group any interaction with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment? A lot of the debate up to now has been about education. I agree with Mr. Donohoe when he says we have to start very early on. Have the witnesses looked at the way in which maths is taught in schools? Have they any knowledge of a whole new concept being pioneered in Stanford, PolyUp mathematics? If not, I ask them to have a look at it and come back to me with a reaction at some stage if that is in order. This whole approach involves critical thinking and analysis, problem solving, innovation, teamwork - all the skills the witnesses have been talking about in their various reports.
I notice that in Finland they have a Committee for the Future in the parliament. I am not sure if Mr. Donohoe or Dr. Power has come across its work. It looks ahead 30 or 40 years to see what kind of challenge will face Finland in that time, reports to parliament every year and holds hearings. It is quite an interesting provision they have in their parliament. Maybe it is something we should suggest we do in our Parliament as well. I do not think our committees are doing that at all.
Could the witnesses comment on career guidance and counselling? I know that Mr. Donohoe is also involved in the Apprenticeship Council and we have spoken about apprenticeships this morning. Quite a lot of apprentices take up their apprenticeship roles and leave quite early on. I think up to a fifth, maybe more, of them leave and do not follow through. I am concerned as to why that is happening. Is it that they pick the wrong job initially and it is not what they expected it to be? Are they guided the wrong way at the start? What is going on? It seems to be a huge waste of time and energy, especially when we need people in the various apprenticeships.
If somebody from 30 years ago - a number of us were around at that time - were transported to our time, with the language used, they would not know what cloud hosting, consumer relationship, marketing software, web apps or VPN means. We have changed our language so much, and in 30 years' time I wonder what it will be like - that is, of course, if we are not all under water. I will leave it at that.
Mr. Tony Donohoe:
I thank the Deputy. We have picked a good day to talk about rising sea levels. I cannot claim that I am aware of any work being done on that. It strikes me that it is something that would feed into general construction skills requirements, planning, the environment, etc. While I give Dr. Power a few moments to reflect on that, I will take up some of the Deputy's other questions, which I probably know a little more about.
Regarding mathematics, in a previous life I represented a business lobby on Project Maths. I was on the Project Maths steering group and I still bear the scars from that experience. Reform of the mathematics curriculum was one of the most emotive subjects. I remember three days of phone-ins to radio shows on it. That highlighted the challenges surrounding the leaving certificate because this was an attempt to move from a highly predictable paper implementing a very predictable formula to using maths in real-life environments. They were set up as problems and the emphasis was on problem solving. The business community was pushing for it. Eventually, the reforms went through. I have read some reviews since then that are not completely definitive on the success of the programme. Many of these questions go back to the fact that no education system can be more effective than its teachers. The big challenge there was that a cohort of teachers who were used to teaching to the test were now being asked to transform to problem solving etc. Having said that, in fairness, at the time the mathematics teachers did engage with retraining and reskilling. That is definitely the direction in which we need to move. I will definitely have a look at that Stanford programme because maths is critical as an underpinning of a whole broad range of subjects. It is a basic literacy that we need.
As for Finland's Committee for the Future, Finland is always cited in our world as top of the class in skills development and education. It tends to do education well. Taking the PISA rankings, Finland consistently comes in the top three in mathematics and literacy and has a long tradition of innovation and planning in this area. We used to have similar foresight bodies to that committee in Ireland. It is probably something we should look at again.
Career guidance comes up consistently across all the EGFSN reports as something that needs to be addressed. To respond to the Deputy's question about apprenticeships, the challenge there has been that apprenticeships have been traditionally in those 27 craft areas and, at particular times in the economic cycle when workers, particularly construction workers, could get better paying jobs, they tended to switch out of it. Since then, the reform of the apprenticeship model has tried to broaden the number of apprenticeships and we have over 60 now. I think the essential attractiveness of these newer apprenticeships will be their progression opportunities. It is less likely that people will opt out of them, as the Deputy suggests, but this is taking quite a long time. So far this year we have about 6,500 apprenticeships. Only 20% of them are in those new areas. This is a critical policy challenge - it is an implementation challenge now - to encourage the availability and take-up of these new apprenticeships where there will be these progression opportunities where one can move from a level 5 course right up to doctorate level. It seems a bit counter-intuitive to think of an apprenticeship at PhD level, but University of Limerick is offering one now. Principal engineer is a level 10 qualification. I am not suggesting that everyone wants to attain those levels, but those progression opportunities have to be there if we are to make apprenticeships more attractive.
Perhaps Dr. Power wants to-----
I thank the witnesses for their presentation and the submission. I want to focus on the question of green jobs, which should be central to job creation in the coming years. I know the expert group has a very long report on skills for zero carbon. There is a lot in it that is very good and a lot that I agree with but it tends to take a pretty narrow view of what type of green jobs will exist. I have several questions in this regard. There does not appear to be any reference to public transport in the very long report about skills for zero carbon. The only mention of "bus" in the report is an approvingly cited case study of how electric car take-up in Norway was enhanced by allowing them to use bus lanes. It is pushing towards electric car use as opposed to the significant modal shift away from cars and into public transport promised by the climate action plan chapter on transport. Why is it the case the expert group did not include, for example, the need for more skilled train, tram and bus drivers, support staff, a massive expansion of our public transport network and jobs within public transport as part of green jobs?
Mr. Tony Donohoe:
I thank the Deputy. The report had a very specific focus on renewable energy, residential retrofit and electric vehicle deployment. This was its concern. There are other aspects to green jobs. After this meeting the expert group will look at its work programme for next year. There are other aspects. The Deputy mentioned public transport. There is also the circular economy. These are part of the green jobs agenda that we will consider as possible input to our work programmes. I take the point that the switch to public transport is part of the agenda. This particular report had a focus on these specific areas. That was its remit.
Dr. Alan Power:
To add to what Mr. Donohoe is saying, skills forecasting is a core part of our work. We need clear indications and definitions of what the ambitions are and how they will be delivered by various Departments. We focused on wind and solar power, residential retrofit and electric vehicles because the plans as defined by the relevant Departments were the clearest and deemed to be the main contributing factors in the targets being set for 2030. There is potential, providing that a clear definition is provided on public transport, that we could do a study on it in future.
I thank the witnesses. To tease this out, I take it that the relatively narrow remit of the report is because there were not clear enough indications from the Government on what it will do on public transport. To be clear I am completely on board with retrofitting, solar power and renewable energy. I am sceptical about the focus on electric cars as a way to go. I will also throw in another issue that may be covered by the next item. This is the inclusion of what are known as care jobs as green jobs. These are jobs in childcare, healthcare and education. These are jobs that are inherently very low carbon but produce a lot of benefit for society. Increasingly they are included in the definition of "green jobs" and appropriately so. I encourage the witnesses to include them in the next reports they do.
Mr. Tony Donohoe:
I thank the Deputy. I have to confess I have not seen care jobs thus classified but I take his point. Demographic factors will drive the demand for healthcare employment at a huge rate and childcare to a lesser extent. Childcare is a much broader labour market issue that has to be addressed. It is our failure in childcare that has fed into some of our other labour market shortages in encouraging female participation.
I will take the issues separately. Dr. Power mentioned earlier that sometimes these are labour market shortages, sometimes they are skills shortages and sometimes they are a combination of both. There is a challenge in encouraging people into healthcare per se. A new healthcare apprenticeship is just about to be launched. It has taken a number of years to get it across the line. To encourage people into the sector we need to provide formal training opportunities and progression routes. It goes back to my previous point on why apprenticeships are so important. Healthcare is a very important example. People might come in at a particular level but if there are training and progression opportunities we are more likely to encourage people into the sector. Obviously there are debates about pay but this is not the remit of the expert group. It is really the skills agenda, which is particularly pertinent in healthcare. For similar reasons, with regard to the professionalisation of childcare there is the potential to advance child development opportunities. These are my reflections on these two particular sectors.
The Deputy came in on the definition of "green jobs" and what green jobs are out there. It would be nigh on impossible to produce a report on every potential occupation that would be disrupted or newly created because of low carbon targets. We have to be relatively specific, as he said. This was a large report looking at these three areas. We always try to measure the supply side and the demand side. We try to put numbers on the demand side. A particular focus of the EGFSN, for example, is to see that we need X number of ICT specialists, ask how many does the education system produce and try to match up this supply and demand. If the remit of any one research project is too broad it would lose focus. Having said this, I accept the Deputy's broader comments.
I have a question on housing, where the witnesses project a significant, and necessary, rise in the labour force. Perhaps they will say this question is beyond their remit, and it is fair enough if they do. Is there an issue with attracting construction workers when apprentices start on as little as €7 an hour and suffer from all of the issues that have been discussed previously by the committee, including being sent home when the weather is bad, which does not happen for other workers generally? There is a lack of sick pay and travel costs. Is this an issue with attracting people into the sector?
Mr. Tony Donohoe:
We do not look at comparative wages.
The only comment I would make on that is that apprenticeships in the craft area tend to be governed by wage agreements and some apprenticeships which are pegged to the rate for a particular job are relatively well paid. However, they also have challenges in recruiting people. Beyond that, pay relativities are not something the expert group comments on.
I thank our guests for participating and for the information they sent us. We have stepped into an area where on which there is no limit to the discussion that could take place. Members have touched on different areas this morning.
In general, we are talking about a worldwide shift in economic and social patterns and activity. Globalisation is impacting on the market and we have a demographic in which a bulge is moving through our own population in terms of age, which means Ireland, like many European countries that want to grow their economies, will need inward migration.
I have spent a lot of time working in enterprise. When we look at the economy it is interesting to see the public sector is doing fine because it is underpinned by public sector wages and foreign direct investment, FDI, is doing well because of all the technology and the benefits of working in Ireland and using our skill set. The SME community is where I see the greatest challenges and they affect all business sectors. While some sectors are doing better than others, generally speaking, the real economic headwinds I see coming are will affect service businesses and small manufacturers and retailers.
The key issues one finds with companies on the ground are those the expert group identified, including education in the broadest sense, literacy and computer literacy. However, among the elements missing are the ability of small businesses to intersect and network with larger businesses that can teach them so much. Anyone who gets involved with entrepreneurs will find they have fantastic, forward-looking ideas and an ability to move through the system. However, they need to leverage expertise, which is generally found at a high level either in Ireland or overseas.
The expert group has produced an expansive report highlighting the areas of wind power, electric vehicles, green energy, etc. What is it doing to give people who may not want to go to college the idea that apprenticeships can provide them with a good quality of life and opportunities throughout their lives? Does the expert group have any platforms in which it looks at companies, as opposed to education, to try to resource international competency and expose them to international thoughts, particularly for those that are exposed to or want to access export markets?
Mr. Tony Donohoe:
In terms of apprenticeships, I probably covered in my previous comments what I would regard as the most important way to attract people in, namely, progression opportunities. The earn-and-learn model would be very attractive and would compete with the leaving certificate route if it enjoyed parity of esteem with the leaving certificate. We have 80,000 people applying for colleges through the CAO system. There are approximately 55,000 taking the leaving certificate but approximately 80,000 people apply through the CAO every year. The ambition of the apprenticeship plan is 10,000 per year. That will give the Deputy a sense of the scale of the challenge here.
At the risk of repeating myself, the plan is in place. It is really a matter of how it is implemented, the speed of take-up and developing new opportunities. For example, in biopharmaceuticals there are apprenticeships for laboratory technicians and in financial services the Insurance Institute has run a successful apprenticeship to encourage people in. They are attractive because they have progression opportunities and they are mapped through. Traditionally, Irish society puts a huge premium on education. It is part of our DNA. That is part of the reason the leaving certificate and entrance to higher education is an aspiration at nearly every socioeconomic level. That is what we are faced with in coming up with an alternative model that is attractive.
On Deputy Shanahan's question around linkages and international competency, I completely agree with his analysis of where the main challenges are. They are in the indigenous SME sector. It has always been thus since the 1970s when the FDI sector started to take off. It is a recurring challenge. Perhaps Dr. Power will be able to talk about what Enterprise Ireland is trying to do in that space. I remember that in the 1980s there was a formal business linkages programme between the IDA and the indigenous sector. Maybe that is something that should be revisited. As the Deputy suggests, it is well worth considering. In terms of what is happening specifically, perhaps Dr. Power would like to take up some of the Enterprise Ireland initiatives in this area.
Dr. Alan Power:
Enterprise Ireland is informed by international best practice. It tries to impart that to its client base as well in the form of training programmes, webinars, etc.
In terms of what Mr. Donohoe referenced going back to the 1980s, there was similar work on that side of the house in terms of Enterprise Ireland liaison. I am fairly sure there is some sort of system in place where it tries to maximise supply chain opportunities for indigenous firms into the FDI sector. By virtue of that, an example would be set and some of those best practices filter down to the indigenous enterprises that are feeding in.
I will take Dr. Power up on that point. While I am aware of a number of the platforms Dr. Power spoke about, I do not know how successful they have been in terms of trying to intersect the SME community with large FDI buyers. There are many reasons it is difficult.
Enterprise Ireland's remit is focused only on export opportunities. The local enterprise offices, LEOs, are doing good work but there is a gap to be bridged between companies that are exporting and those that possibly could export. For companies seeking to grow in Ireland, perhaps through import substitution, I would like to see greater co-ordination between Enterprise Ireland and the SME community rather than focusing only on businesses that are totally focused on exports.
I thank the witnesses for appearing. This is an informative and timely meeting. Obviously, there are many issues and challenges facing the hospitality sector and these have been intensified by the new restrictions. The Restaurant Association of Ireland called for an updated report on the skills needs in tourism and hospitality on three occasions in the past 20 months. The expert group on future skills needs is still not scheduled to meet. The previous report was done in 2015. Understandably, that report is well out of date at this stage given the vagaries in the sector and the changes to how those businesses operate. We need to acknowledge that there is a skills crisis in the hospitality sector. It is particularly urgent at this point that we get concrete data.
Where are we in terms of the expert group on future skills needs and its schedule? Can Mr. Donohoe give me some indication and a timeline as to when the group will be up and running and when we can expect to see some information emanating from it?
Mr. Tony Donohoe:
We are aware of requests from the sector. To give the Deputy an indication of how we do our business, we get multiple requests from different Departments across the system and from different sectors to produce reports. It is a small secretariat within the Department that manages and runs this and there is also a very finite budget. Therefore, we have to make decisions based on metrics that we have pre-decided in terms of the case that is made. Indeed, as I said earlier, we are considering our work programme this morning and it is something we come back to regularly.
Choices have to be made. When we produce a report, because it is very easy to produce these reports and for them to sit on a shelf, we have been much more active in the implementation area of the findings and in assembling an implementation group for at least two years after each report is published, although in some cases it is just to oversee the implementation of the recommendations. That is what has happened with hospitality, where our involvement has just come to an end on that implementation phase. It is a case of analysing where the challenges are and then overseeing an implementation phase. That is definitely what has happened with hospitality, plus the fact it has to make its case along with the other competing demands. I know that, in employment terms, hospitality and retail between them account for almost one quarter of the workforce, so they are very important and significant sectors. Overall, we go through a process of managing our resources.
Dr. Power might have something to say on the implementation of the last hospitality skills report.
Dr. Alan Power:
The expert group on future skills needs secretariat’s connection with that ended in 2018 and that is now being carried on by Fáilte Ireland, so it is now the tourism and hospitality skills group, in which all the major industry organisations are represented. There were some key initiatives which arose out of the implementation of the 2015 report. There are apprenticeships which are up and running and which were produced arising out of that. There are also Skillnet Ireland programmes arising out of that, as well as access to the employment permits system for a number of key hospitality and tourism roles. The sector would also work very closely with the Department of Social Protection in terms of EURES, the EU body which is designed to facilitate mobility within the European Union for workers. In terms of gaining recognition for the importance of skills development within the broader tourism and hospitality sector, and the number of initiatives and outlets the sector can leverage now, much was produced by the report. In terms of the implementation and monitoring, that is now being carried on by Fáilte Ireland in connection with the industry groups through the forum that is currently active.
I can certainly appreciate the demands on the finite resources of the secretariat. However, we have to acknowledge that since 2018, when it finished that phase and it was handed over to Fáilte Ireland, there has been seismic change in this sector. Every member of this committee will be aware of the anecdotal information we are getting that a large number of those who were in the hospitality trade simply have not returned after the pandemic and the restrictions. Particularly among older people, given the isolation of the pandemic, not being able to work and not having that social dimension to their lives, they simply would not go back to hospitality afterwards. There is a huge crisis in this sector, much more so than in retail. Retail is challenged but I do not think it faces the same challenges that hospitality faces. I plead with the witnesses to try to prioritise an updated report on this sector. In terms of the suite of measures that we need to give the hospitality sector, we need to give them financial supports but we also need to give them the bricks and mortar to rebuild this sector, and this is a key part of that.
I welcome the witnesses. I have read the report. I have been engaging with Seamus Hoyne and a number of other people. My background is in education, including environmental education. I have worked with the HETAC model and used FETAC over the years, as well as mainstream physics and maths teaching. Therefore, I understand the system, the layering of it, apprenticeships and the challenges apprentices face. I also have friends who are guidance counsellors and others who are apprentices.
We already have an alternative to the leaving certificate, although it is not really recognised or known about, and that is the HETAC system. The junior certificate is equivalent to level 4 and the leaving certificate is equivalent to level 7. This system has been used successfully by students to not do the leaving certificate but instead to go into apprenticeships and attend third level universities. Therefore, there is an already existing system and I strongly recommend that the witnesses get their heads around that HETAC system. Seamus Hoyne would be well-placed to tell them about it.
George O'Callaghan is the chief executive officer of the Clare and Limerick Education and Training Board. The education and training boards are located all over Ireland and that is the model they use. I have used it to develop certification, for example, for a group of Traveller men who were illiterate but who could still write a module on copper work for which they were able to get certificates. It is a very good model of learning because it has specific learning outcomes as opposed to academic three-hour exams, which we see everybody is moving away from now.
The other thing to flag is that apprenticeships are not on the CAO. If we want to value apprenticeships, we need to start looking at how we do the apprenticeship programme, and I have raised this with the Minister, Deputy Harris. We have a lot of work to do to get people into apprenticeships and there are some challenges with the fact they start at different times of the year. As the witnesses rightly said, we value education in this country but, if it is not quite a judgment or snobbery, there is a bit of a thing about saying “Oh, my son is in college.” If people do an apprenticeship, they are in college because they study and they do practical stuff, which is the exact same as what people do in college. We have to look at the language we use around this. I believe strongly that apprenticeships should start in September-October at the same time that college starts, so that when people are leaving school after leaving certificate or fifth year, they all go off in September-October, whether it is to an apprenticeship, to third level or otherwise. There is a lot of work to be done around that.
The HETAC system is very good. We need to stop calling it the leaving certificate and call it HETAC level 6. People can do post-leaving certificate courses, PLCs. I have a friend who did not do a junior certificate or leaving certificate, and she did PLCs and is now doing an honours masters degree in University College Cork, despite never having sat an exam in secondary school. That is from 15 or 20 years ago. The model is there and we just need to bring it out of the dark.
With regard to the whole conversation we are having today, I have flagged and put it in as a suggestion for our work programme that we deal with the whole area around SMEs and the solutions and supports needed. For example, Padraig O’Reilly and Seamus Hoyne are doing great work in this area, in particular on the Speedier project and DigiEco. We got funding from the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Trade and Employment, Deputy Varadkar, in the last budget, with €22 million for digitalising and decarbonising the SME sector. That is something we have to deal with as a committee and it is something I know Mr. Donohoe and Dr. Power will be involved in. The funding is there; we need to figure out the how as soon as possible.
That is why I put it on our work programme that we invite Mr. Padraic McElwee from the local enterprise offices. They have done considerable work through the green for micro initiative but they need help with giving mentors and employees the skill set and knowledge to encourage SMEs to decarbonise. We have secured funding from the Tánaiste, so there is nothing stopping us from doing this. I am flagging this matter with the witnesses. The expert group highlighted it in its report. We are ready to go. As a country, we could initiate it now.
I was speaking to Business in the Community Ireland. The witnesses referred to the need to link up with big businesses, even if only philanthropically. Businesses are raring to go. I plan to hold a session of this committee with Business in the Community Ireland, Mr. Seamus Hoyne, Mr. Joe Leddin, who advises businesses on grants and training to upskill employees, including digitalising and decarbonising the SME sector, and Mr. Padraic McElwee of the local enterprise offices as well as the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, on the circular economy. We have all the knowledge and funding we now need to help the SME sector. I hope we as a committee will work on this and follow up on the expert group's report. I have done a great deal of work in this regard. From speaking with Mr. Tomás Sercovich of Business in the Community Ireland, businesses are raring to go and big companies are happy to engage with smaller ones. They will do this partly for their own sake because they need to figure out the supply chain. Small companies are struggling to make their carbon evaluations and all the large companies want those evaluations because the latter's carbon footprints must take account of their suppliers'. This is why we need to help small businesses not just to decarbonise, but to know the value of what they have done and what their carbon footprint is. This is the only way forward. I quoted Mr. Larry Fink, the billionaire, to the Tánaiste when making my pre-budget submission to him and when speaking about decarbonisation. Climate investment is economic investment. There is no security in business otherwise. Businesses can forget about it if they are not decarbonising. That is the only way forward.
I thank the witnesses for their time and their important report.
Mr. Tony Donohoe:
I will talk quickly. Regarding HETAC or, more generally, the framework of qualifications, one of strengths of the Irish system is that we have a very established national framework of qualifications that links up different pieces of the system. This is not seen in every country across Europe. We are leaders in this regard and I agree that it should get more airing.
We have discussed apprenticeships in detail at this meeting. There are moves under way to align apprenticeships with the Central Applications Office, CAO, system. At least we have reached the stage where there is a link on the CAO website bringing applicants to different areas. We are looking at a micro-credentials project. I am interested in hearing about DigiEco and how it will help in that regard. As our report has tried to point out, the decarbonisation agenda will not necessarily create new occupations, although there will be some. Rather, this has become everyone's concern. Everyone in enterprise will have to have an awareness and basic knowledge. That is where short courses are particularly important.
I am familiar with Business in the Community Ireland and know some of its board members. We can talk to it about its carbon footprint activity and sustainability agenda, which covers environmental and social sustainability.
I will try not to take the full time, given that other members wish to contribute.
I agree 100% with Senator Garvey's comments on HETAC. I used to work for HETAC, which no longer exists. It was subsumed into Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, but the work continues. A large amount can and should be done around the national qualifications framework and the European qualifications framework. A framework gives us a route, but not necessarily to putting a label on something, in that it does not have to be a leaving certificate, junior certificate or even an intermediate certificate, as I would have done. It can just be a level 1 to level 6 qualification or whatever. We are not making as much as we should be of the fact we have that framework. When HETAC was subsumed into QQI ten or more years ago, the intention was to streamline educational qualifications, but we still use the outdated system. We still have a single big exam for the majority of people. There needs to be a shift in mindsets in this regard.
On the recognition of prior qualifications, we are missing a trick. There are people who are doing work that could be subject to a proper streamlined evaluation process. I am not necessarily speaking about people with a single large qualification but about people with a series of smaller qualifications that could be added together. QQI used to do this to a large extent but I am unsure as to how much it is happening at the moment. Do we have a pool of skills we are not recognising? Generally, an increase in wages comes with the recognition of skills, but the value is coming from the worker attaining those skills. Do we have an unevaluated set of skills we could tap into?
Mr. Tony Donohoe:
Recognition of prior learning, RPL, has been on the agenda. I used to be on the board of the National Qualifications Authority, which was part of the HETAC family. We examined the issue of RPL repeatedly. I agree with the Deputy that RPL is important, not only for the untapped pool but to encourage more people to take up lifelong learning and upskilling. It is an important motivational factor. It is a tough situation, though. In some sectors, for example, hospitality, RPL is easier to achieve on a basic level. If someone can cook, he or she can demonstrate those skills. During our research, we heard comments from people in other sectors that they might as well do the courses and exams because that would be less work than having to demonstrate and put together portfolios to show their prior experience. While I accept that RPL is a challenge, it should be done.
I mentioned the human capital initiative and micro-credentials. The human capital initiative accounts for a significant amount of money, that being €300 million over five years. One of the other projects looks at RPL specifically and how universities in particular could use RPL in their admission systems.
I agree 100% with the Deputy primarily from the perspective of motivation. People like to have their learning acknowledged formally. It sets them on a route.
I will be brief. I am intrigued by what Dr. Power might say regarding rising sea levels. He did not get time earlier. I will go through my other questions before he answers but I will put it to him we need architects and engineers to start designing stuff. We either put up barriers, move to higher ground or put our houses up on stilts. There are many factors involved. What is happening is on the way and cannot be stopped.
I asked Mr. Donohoe about the expert group's interaction with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA. It would be important the expert group's knowledge and research would feed into the NCCA. Mr. Donohoe might tell me what interaction there has been and how it is going.
Where do the witnesses see remote working hubs and spaces going? They are a relatively new phenomenon. There were 12 parliamentary questions on the matter in the Dáil last night, which shows colleagues' interest in it. Has the expert group examined it in terms of future skills?
Have our guests done any work on local training initiatives, that is, programmes for learners who are unable to participate in other training for personal, social or geographical reasons? There are a number of the initiatives throughout the country. These are people the system has failed. Have our guests examined the kinds of skills being developed there and how they can be further enhanced and supported? They are really helpful in picking up young people who might otherwise fall through the cracks, for want of a better way of putting it.
I could not agree more with our guests' comment on teaching to the test. It is important they made that comment. I am aware of youngsters who learn off essays in various languages, regurgitate paragraphs and put them together to answer questions in exams, which is appalling because it does not help at all in critical thinking, analysis and so forth.
Mr. Tony Donohoe:
It is something whose implementation the zero carbon group will need to build in because it is critical, and it probably does relate to those skills the Deputy identified.
Over the years, we have had much involvement with the NCCA and with businesses represented on the council. I chaired a reform group looking at a new junior certificate business studies curriculum, and it was a really interesting experience. It demonstrated to me, as someone who has made a living pontificating about the education system, the degree of hard and technical work that is required on the ground to develop something fit for purpose. The business studies curriculum had not been revised for 30 years and it still covered matters such as double-entry bookkeeping. That was a learning experience.
We are really hooked in to the NCCA. It is a really important organisation that does tremendous work on curriculum reform. The gap is in how the education system and teachers assimilate the council’s recommendations. There is always a tension in respect of teachers teaching to the test, as was noted, and the curriculum specifications tend to be very involved and prescriptive in that regard. In the context of some of the debates on curriculum reform now, the NCCA defines the learning outcomes and relies to a greater degree on the professional competence of teachers and their flexibility in how they deliver that, which suits teachers who have come from training institutions in recent years and would be well aware of the latest pedagogical techniques. In short, the NCCA is an organisation we are well aware of and work with, and I am a great admirer of it. Some of the more progressive thinkers in Irish education are under its roof.
We have not looked specifically at remote working hubs but reports on digitisation, in general, make passing reference to blended and remote working. There is much commentary on this at the moment because of the times we are in, but this will have to play out in regard to how we can maximise the use of technology and minimise some of the disadvantages. We have managed it through an emergency, but this will have to play out much longer such that we will be able to use these remote working hubs and have the skills, and management skills in particular, to manage workers in that context.
I will take the final points together. We have not looked at local training initiatives per sebut they are referenced in different reports. This speaks to the Deputy’s point about having different ways of learning. The classroom does not suit everyone. People have different ways of assimilating knowledge; some are more practical or theoretical, while some learn by doing or by being demonstrated to. An important area in the context of local training initiatives relates to pre-apprenticeship courses. I am quite familiar with one such course in the north inner city of Dublin run through Technological University Dublin, and there are others. It is a particularly interesting means of approaching this because it prepares people for something beyond.
I hope I have answered the Deputy's questions.
There is one such course in my town where young people learn through music, which is quite interesting.
I mentioned the PolyUp maths challenge earlier. There is a pilot project in Cork at the moment, which is very exciting. I would be interested to hear Mr. Donohoe's reaction to that when he has a moment.
I return to the issues of design and management in SMEs. As I said earlier, these issues have been around forever, and as the circular economy takes hold, with enterprise having to design out much of the environmental damage from initial product design through to packaging, waste management and how the product is used, prepared and repurposed, we will need much more sophisticated design if our enterprises are to be successful. I recall Enterprise Ireland producing a report, I think based on McKinsey, that indicated the single greatest step that could be taken to increase prosperity among Irish companies was to strengthen management. I would be grateful if our guests' group could provide us with a few succinct recommendations, not necessarily today, on how these two very achievable shifts could be made. They are both manageable, do not cost an arm and a leg and could be done through those sorts of incremental schemes our guests spoke about, such as Springboard, the human capital initiative or even Skillsnet. We need a succinct proposition, and I would certainly be happy to try to drive it on in any of the departmental circles we can influence as a committee.
The main difference in regard to apprenticeship is that it is a jobs contract. While I take my hat off to the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science for including apprenticeships on CAO forms, whereby they can all be seen as options, getting an apprenticeship is a different matter. Is there any scope for sectors to come together in some way in order that people can sign on without that additional challenge of finding a specific enterprise to take them on as an apprentice? That seems to be one of the main obstacles preventing people taking on apprenticeships.
Judging by what our guests said, it seems we are having to make small changes at the margins, setting up little funds and initiatives, because the system is so resistant to change. What can be done to make the education system a bit more responsive in its mainstream activities, rather than having to have the human capital initiative, ICT plans or Springboard tacked on at the edge?
Mr. Tony Donohoe:
On design thinking, which is what we are talking about here, the prescription is not new, as the Deputy pointed out. It has been around for a while. When we produced the Winning by Design report in 2017, we had quite a challenge in getting the education system to understand what we meant by design. When people think of design, they think of aesthetic design, and people were not thinking beyond that. Nevertheless, we are making progress.
We produced a follow-up report on digital design, which is very important now. It is not just about the technology; it is about how people use it. That has been behind the success of the most successful technology companies. They often do not have the best technology, but they have design that would encourage people to use it and tap into what people want. There is also product design and redesign, as well as strategic design and how we look at our businesses.
There is an implementation group working on that and we will hear a report from it at the meeting after this. I will definitely bear in mind what the Deputy is suggesting. Another group is addressing the specific challenges for SMEs more generally and not just on design thinking. We can come back to see what part of the journey we are on.
I mentioned the benchmarking tool initially. There are other initiatives encouraging them to take up more formal training. There tends to be a resistance to formal training. In human resources management, in its broadest sense there seem to be gaps in recruitment and managing performance. We can revert to the Deputy on how we might move that conversation on.
The Deputy is right about the challenge of how to promote apprenticeships. The new apprenticeship office should be the single repository to which companies post job vacancies. We have done this in the past with the much-maligned JobBridge. I do not want to get into a debate about it; I actually thought it was a good thing at the time. It had a single repository of internship opportunities that companies could post to. It had the IT infrastructure.
I do not think we should do it on a sectoral basis because many apprenticeships now are more occupationally based than sectorally based. An occupation in a high-end regulated food manufacturer could also share more or less the same characteristics as in biopharma manufacturing in a highly regulated environment. By focusing on sectors, we might be missing a trick. We need somewhere where employers can post apprenticeships where people can access them very quickly. At the moment it is quite dispersed across education and training boards, ETBs, etc. I understand there are efforts in that regard with apprenticeship.ie.
I take the Deputy's point on inertia in the system; it is like moving the Titanic. I would not fully agree that we are just impacting at the margins. I would have no problems calling out particular sectors. The institutes of technology, some of which have now become technological universities, have traditionally worked quite well based on my experience with enterprise. That was part of their DNA and was what defined them from their origins back as technical colleges. Those interventions, some of which I have mentioned such as skill nets and the human capital initiative, are more than things that are happening around the margins. The human capital initiative pillar 3 is about innovation in the higher education sector. This is about making the sector more responsive. We are making progress. I have been working in this area for many years and the responsiveness of our education system is better than it was 15 years or more ago.
I will try to give the witnesses more time to talk this time. I always forget about that. We did not hear from Dr. Power at all.
I spoke to a plumber friend of mine who has 20 staff to hear his perspective. I love listening to tradesman. When trying to sort out the issue it is always good to talk to the lads on the ground. He said that the plumbing apprenticeship programme is appallingly stuck in the 1980s. New plumbers are not getting proper up-to-date training on air-to-water systems or using plastic rather than copper and metal materials. I have the details in an email from him that I could read out, but the witnesses get the idea. The plumbing apprenticeship training is not up to speed and as a result the tradesman, the employer, is left paying a private company to do training for the apprentice to learn how to use the new systems, some of which have been around for some time. I believe my brother got an air-to-water system in his house 15 years ago so it is not that new.
My friend said that as an employer, it is frustrating to release an apprentice for block release knowing that most of what they are learning will not be applicable to their actual job. A complete overhaul of the syllabus is badly needed. His father went to AnCO in 1971 and much of what he did then is still taught today 50 years later. That is something I want to flag. I brought it up previously. It is great that we have apprenticeships and all that, but what we are teaching them needs to be relevant. Otherwise, we are putting extra costs on the employer to pay private companies to upskill their apprentices who are not learning it in their apprenticeships.
I want to talk about SOLAS. It is still not possible to get a safe pass online, which is prohibitive. In England they have been doing safe passes online for years. I have also been on about this for months. This is not just related to the Covid pandemic but applies generally. Why can they not be done online? It is costly and time consuming if someone needs to travel. I was told that somebody from County Clare needs to go to County Roscommon for the next available one.
The prior learning is not completely clear to me. I have been trying to get the information from SOLAS. It appears that people are required to send in a portfolio or something. I do not know if anybody here is aware of that, but it is still not clear to me. I have failed after months trying to find out how the prior learning actually works. I got some vague response about them sending in a portfolio. My concept of a portfolio is when leaving certificate students need to submit an art portfolio and they get very stressed out about it. I am wondering how hard and prohibitive it is to ask a tradesman with 30 years' experience to submit a portfolio. There are some great people who do not have qualifications and are happy to take on apprenticeships but do not have the certificate.
Mr. Tony Donohoe:
I agree with the Senator on apprenticeship programmes not being up-to-date. She mentioned plumbing and this has become so much more important with zero carbon. This probably does not happen as quickly as it should.
Regarding recognition of prior learning, RPL, in my response to Deputy O'Reilly, I highlighted some of the challenges but that is not an excuse for it not working. It should work and there should be explicit guidance on portfolio preparation. I agree broadly with the Senator's comments.
Dr. Alan Power:
SOLAS is represented as a very active member on the EGFSN. A representative of SOLAS is always on the steering group for any the reports we undertake. They are there to advise on the further education training piece. Most recently for the zero-carbon report we worked very closely with SOLAS on the retrofit piece particularly on the need to upskill plumbers for heat pump installation. There is constant interaction with SOLAS on devising reports and recommendations.
I will be brief as I understand the lads are under pressure. Regarding the report and the shortage of skills in the tourism and hospitality sector, that has been relevant in recent months. I ask the witnesses to outline a timeframe for me in that regard. I understand the expert group on future skills needs, but there does not seem to be an associated timeline and it does not seem to be on the works programme. I have experience in the sector, and the last report, to my knowledge, is from 2015. We are now going into 2022. What I am asking for therefore is a timeline. I know the witnesses have time constraints and I am going to the Chamber as well.
Mr. Tony Donohoe:
I thank the Senator for that question and I will give a swift response. We dealt with this in a previous question. In respect of 2015, that is correct, but then we set up an implementation group to ensure those recommendations were started. It is easy to do these reports, but then we must follow up with implementation. That work has now moved over to Fáilte Ireland and a group there. Regarding a work programme, we do not decide what we are going to be doing two years hence. There is a specific set of circumstances for the hospitality sector now and we will definitely consider any requests from that group to look at ongoing skills issues. However, we must be pretty clear in our mind as well that we are talking about skills shortages as opposed to labour shortages. I say that because the remit of the group is around skills and deficits in skills. The focus is on people not having the required skills rather than on not having the labour. There is a slight difference in meaning here. I refer to people choosing not to work in areas.
I could not agree more. There is a great shortage of chefs across the country, area managers for hotels and restaurants, etc. I fully understand the point Mr. Donohoe is making regarding labour shortages versus skills shortages. I do not expect a full answer, but I would like Mr. Donohoe at least to give me some hope concerning a timeframe. I thank Mr. Donohoe.
As nobody has indicated, this concludes our consideration of this matter. I thank Mr. Donohoe and Dr. Power from the expert group on future skills needs for assisting the committee with this matter today. It is one we will probably return to in due course. That concludes the committee's public business for today. I propose the committee now go into private session to consider other business. Is that agreed? Agreed.