Plan to upgrade skills levels of workers by 2020

Ireland’s Expert Group on Future Skills Needs unveiled an ambitious plan in March 2007 to raise the skill levels of over half a million people during the next 10 years. The Expert Skills Group has warned that the skill levels of the labour force need to be enhanced if social and economic progress is to be maintained in relation to competitor economies.

In March 2007, the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs (EGFSN) unveiled an ambitious plan to raise the skill levels of over half a million people in Ireland by 2020. EGFSN is a body appointed by the Irish government – under the aegis of the National Economic Development Authority and Advisory Board (Forfás) and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment – to act as the central national resource on skills and labour supply issues and to develop an overall strategy for professional training in Ireland.

The EGFSN plan is contained in the study report Tomorrow’s skills: Towards a national skills strategy, which predicts that workers in Ireland will need to increase their skill levels significantly by 2020. Some 9% more jobs will require degree level or higher qualifications; 4% more occupations will require third-level certificates or diplomas; and 2% more will require a minimum secondary school Leaving Certificate standard.

Under the EGFSN plan, the skill levels of 480,000 people would be raised by at least one level, with the skills of another 30,000 being lifted by at least two levels over the period to 2020. Specifically, there is a need to upgrade the skills of: 70,000 persons from the National Framework of Qualification (NFQ) levels 1 and 2 to level 3; 260,000 persons up to levels 4 and 5 (equivalent to leaving certificate level); and 170,000 persons to levels 6 to 10. The Expert Group also emphasises that the skill levels of the workforce need to be augmented if current social and economic progress is to be underpinned.

Financial investment

The expert group estimates the cost of the proposed training to NFQ levels 3, 4 and 5 over the proposed 13-year period at €153 million a year. At the same time, the cost of the additional skill upgrading to the higher levels (6–10) is estimated at €304 million a year. These costs reflect tuition fees, which should be apportioned between the state, employers and individuals. This would bring the total cost of the plan to more than €5 billion.

The report recommends that a pupil retention rate of 90% at leaving certificate level be set as a target to be reached by 2020, while the progression rate to third level should increase from 55% to 72%. EGFSN also considers that ‘Ireland requires a third-level fee structure that reflects its economic and social needs.’ In particular, it is suggested that the government press ahead with implementing immediately the commitment in the current national social partnership agreement, Towards 2016 (3Mb PDF), to establish a fund to ‘alleviate the fees in public institutions for those at work’. In other words, the intention is to provide funds so that working people can avail of reduced tuition fees when enrolling for university and college courses.

Targeting immigrant workers

The plan identifies immigrant workers as being in need of special attention to ensure that they are properly integrated into the labour force: ‘The system for recognition of international awards should be reviewed to ensure that it is meeting its objectives.’ Moreover, according to EGFSN:

Procedures to identify those migrants who most need English language training are also required. The provision of this training needs to be extended, with a distinction being maintained between adult literacy and English language proficiency. A strategy is required to ensure that migrants integrate into the formal education and training system at all levels and specifically that migrant children are successfully integrated into the Irish education system, particularly at primary and secondary level.

EGFSN highlights that ‘science, engineering, information and communication technologies (ICT), and research and development (R&D) skills are an integral part of a knowledge-based economy and their promotion remains important.’ It expresses concern at the decline in applications for many science and technology courses at third level; this problem needs to be tackled early on in the educational cycle. The report highlights, in particular, a looming shortage of people at technician level.

According to EGFSN, employees and their managers need to give much priority to retraining. In its view, ‘individuals and businesses are not aware of their skills shortcomings’, adding that ‘third level institutions which want to grow can do so by reorienting their offerings towards those in the workforce in need of upskilling.’

The estimated workforce of 2.4 million in 2020 – compared with approximately two million in 2007 – will include 310,000 extra workers who are immigrants or who enter the workforce as a result of ‘increased participation’, that is mostly women returning to the workforce.

Tony Dobbins, IRN Publishing

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