Skillnet Ireland Chief Executive, Paul Healy, discusses efforts to transform the competitiveness, innovation, and productivity of the business sector in Ireland through enterprise-led talent development.
A highly skilled workforce is central to Ireland’s national competitiveness. As the government business support agency responsible for workforce development, Skillnet Ireland supports around 22,500 businesses annually through the provision of enterprise-led training and workforce learning. This is characterised by the 90,000 workers supported through Skillnet Ireland programmes in 2022.
“While important to every country, a highly skilled workforce assumes an added significance for Ireland because the economic model requires that we compete, to a large extent, on the basis of our human capital, our talent, our people,” Healy explains.
Skillnet Ireland’s primary job is to ensure that Irish companies have the talent that they need to maintain their competitive edge and to thrive. Simultaneously, through its training and upskilling programmes, the career mobility and skills of the workforce is also enhanced.
In the context of renewed government policy emphasis on skills, Skillnet Ireland has experienced a large increase in exchequer investment from the National Training Fund through the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science in the past four years.
“We are receiving great levels of support from our Minister and Department for the work that we undertake because government recognises the value of an agile agency that is working directly with companies on the ground and that has deep roots into industry,” Healy highlights.
Alongside exchequer funding, Skillnet Ireland competes for EU investment and also attracts private sector co-investment. In 2022, the business support agency anticipates that it will raise over €22 million in private sector co-investment on its programmes.
“Government recognises the value of an agile agency that is working directly with companies on the ground and that has deep roots into industry.”
Paul Healy, Chief Executive, Skillnet Ireland
“In an average year, companies are willing to contribute a minimum of €22 million towards the cost of training through Skillnet Ireland. That is demonstrating a high level of buy-in from industry. However, we frequently experience high levels of demand emanating from companies for our programmes that we cannot meet. This means that we must continue to make the case to deploy the National Training Fund surplus to meet areas of growing demand within the skills system,” Healy observes.
Skillnet Ireland is defined by its enterprise-led and demand-driven ethos. For 23 years, Skillnet Ireland has operated as a partnership organisation, endeavouring to meet market demand through its enterprise-led approach.
Through its 72 Skillnet Business Networks, which represent industry sectors and regions throughout the economy, Skillnet Ireland directly engages with companies and industry groups on their skills requirements and subsequently facilitates the design, development, and delivery of training on a cost sharing basis with companies. In practice this means that all workforce development programmes delivered through Skillnet Ireland are aligned with the specific needs of companies and are driven by market need.
“Industry is adept at anticipating the next shift or new emerging trend – such as in digitalisation, the sustainability agenda, new competitiveness issues or regulatory reform – while individual companies inform the process, Skillnet Ireland collaborates with industry to implement the workforce development programmes that ensure a sufficient supply of skills for the jobs of the future, enabling companies to compete, to win new investment and to be future ready,” the Skillnet Ireland Chief Excutive explains.
“Now is time to double down on talent, engaging more companies in the upskilling of their teams, and increasing the investment in Ireland’s greatest asset, its people.”
“The strength of the Skillnet Ireland enterprise-led model is the agility it engenders – any system that is enterprise-led is responsive, agile, and has a finger on the pulse of industry.”
In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, industry witnessed an unprecedented level of workplace disruption caused by the accelerated deployment of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and automation.
“This has two dimensions,” Healy reflects, continuing: “Firstly, it has the potential to unlock a significant amount of new innovation and growth. Secondly, it has the impact of changing jobs and transforming roles.”
Skillnet Ireland works closely with the higher education sector and industry to help ensure that the type of programmes and qualifications that align with emerging technologies are available for companies. One example is Skillnet Ireland’s work in the field of artificial intelligence, where it worked with industry and the university sector to create Ireland’s first postgraduate offering in this pivotal emerging technology.
“Forty tech companies and three universities sat around the table to coalesce around the skills challenge of artificial intelligence, creating a postgraduate offering where there previously was a gap in provision. Now, approximately 300 people pass through the MSc courses in AI across three universities. Skillnet Ireland provided the seed funding and brought together the actors to develop the qualifications and we now co-fund their delivery together with industry. The offering is making a significant difference to the tech sector allowing firms here to compete for new AI investment and projects,” Healy emphasises.
Technology is having a disruptive impact elsewhere, particularly in the manufacturing sector where trends are moving towards robotics, cobotics, and automated work practices. Referencing Skillnet Ireland’s involvement with Thermo King – a manufacturer of temperature control systems for transport – in Galway, “which has had a long presence in Ireland and is at the cutting edge of automated manufacturing processes”, Healy highlights that enhanced efficiencies in the production process are being driven by robots and cobots.
“In collaboration with Atlantic Technological University, Skillnet Ireland is engaging with operative staff in Thermo King and upskilling them to become robotic engineers. Through this process of upskilling, the staff enhance the competitiveness of the site while also hugely improving their own career opportunities,” he remarks.
While Skillnet Ireland’s primary objective is to increase participation in enterprise training by businesses, it must also ensure delivery against government policy priorities, particularly cross-government strategies relating to climate action, digitalisation, enhanced productivity in the SME sector, and the critical work of growing foreign direct investment.
For instance, the Government of Ireland has set out an ambition that Ireland will become a global leader in climate finance, a journey that is largely contingent on talent. “Climate finance is the apex of the ongoing transformation that is underway across the global financial system to enable the green transition,” Healy observes.
In February 2023, Ireland will open the world’s first International Sustainable Finance Centre of Excellence, developed by Sustainable Finance Ireland in partnership with Skillnet Ireland, and in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme.
“This will establish Ireland as a global skills hub for climate finance, attracting increased investment, and creating new employment,” Healy states.
Similarly, through its strategic partnership with IDA Ireland, Skillnet Ireland engages with 1,200 multinational corporations (MNCs) on an annual basis. MNCs typically inhabit knowledge-intensive sectors, such as life sciences, biopharmachem, digital and advanced manufacturing that require prodigious levels of fresh talent, ideas and skilled people.
“Government’s ambition to encourage more MNCs to choose Ireland as a location is very much rooted in our thriving innovation and talent ecosystem, and the mutual benefits arising from the participation of MNCs in that ecosystem. Skillnet Ireland, the higher education institutes, and the research community are all vital components of Ireland’s ‘talent island’ proposition, helping to secure further international investment by putting workforce development centre stage.
“Multinational corporations enjoy working with Skillnet Ireland because they have a high degree of control and influence over the process. The multinationals determine where the skill gaps exist, they tell us what they need and Skillnet Ireland responds through its Skillnet Business networks.”
Likewise, more higher education (HE) institutions are seeking to collaborate with Skillnet Ireland because of its links to industry: “Bringing industry and higher education together, Skillnet Ireland plays an important role in co-creating new programmes with the HE sector in areas of the economy where we want to boost provision, such as in digital, sustainability, construction, fintech, advanced manufacturing, biopharma and life sciences,” Healy notes.
“We give universities a very clear route to interact directly with companies, whereby they can articulate the challenges and emerging needs. In turn, universities can design education programmes that are highly responsive and speaking to the future of work.”
In 2023, Skillnet Ireland expects to co-develop many programmes with the higher education sector. Most of those programmes are designed, or heavily customised to meet specific demands that industry has expressed. On average, around 4,500 people will pass through Skillnet Ireland’s co-created programmes with higher education each year.
“Above all, Skillnet Ireland is a collaborative organisation. Our job is to establish a cohesive link between industry and the education and training system. To do so, Skillnet Ireland cultivates deep relationships across state agencies, government departments, industry bodies, and – most importantly – directly with private sector companies,” Healy advises.
SMEs are the backbone of the Irish economy and Skillnet Ireland wants to ensure that the SME sector is as productive and innovative as it can be. To achieve this, employers must optimise the time they allocate to workforce development.
Approaching this challenge from a SME management perspective, Skillnet Ireland is reaching out to small business owners, talking to them plainly about their challenges and embedding them in their support system.
“We are pairing experienced mentors with small business owners who can then engage on their own terms,” Healy says, adding: “This type of business mentoring has proved to be hugely effective.”
In 2023, Skillnet Ireland expects to support over 3,000 companies through the MentorsWork scheme, which is designed to support small and micro firms through mentorship.
“There are many supports out there for SMEs and Skillnet Ireland acknowledges that it can be complex for small firms to navigate the state support ecosystem”.
“But we have seen that once a small business owner is engaged on the basis of their own lifelong learning journey, they tend to place a much greater focus on upskilling their teams, tapping into the wider State funded supports, and cultivating more productive and innovative workplaces,” the Skillnet Ireland Chief Excutive emphasises.
Alluding to Ireland’s “pro-business framework” Healy identifies the talent ecosystem and educational attainment levels as vital components, but also notes the less tangible strengths: “The uniquely open culture of collaboration that pervades here in Ireland, the communication and leadership skills, the creativity and adaptability of the workforce all add to Ireland’s competitive edge,” Healy says.
Given that workforce development is a top priority of the State, government has recently strengthened Skillnet Ireland’s mandate, giving it responsibility for spearheading workforce development on behalf of the enterprise sector.
Healy concludes: “Now is time to double down on talent, engaging more companies in the upskilling of their teams, and increasing the investment in Ireland’s greatest asset, its people.”
Paul Healy, Chief Executive, Skillnet Ireland
A native of Salthill, Galway, Paul has lived and worked in Dublin for the past 25 years. Having spent over 15 years working in commercial and HR leadership roles in the private sector, he joined the public service through Skillnet Ireland in 2016. As a member of Ireland’s National Skills Council, the National Training Fund Advisory Group, and the EU Commission Skills for Industry Policy Group, he has a great sense of purpose in the work undertaken by Skillnet Ireland. Paul is a graduate of DCU and, outside of work, is married with four children and keenly involved in local sports, particularly with Kilmacud Crokes GAA Club and Mount Merrion FC.