Wednesday 28 September 2016

Flexibility is the skill that our school-leavers need the most

John Walshe

Published 23/08/2016 | 02:30

Whether they go into further or higher education, students will need to lay the groundwork of flexibility to be able to respond quickly to this changing dynamic.
Whether they go into further or higher education, students will need to lay the groundwork of flexibility to be able to respond quickly to this changing dynamic.

This year's school-leavers were very pragmatic in their college choices, with many going for careers where there are jobs at present. That's hardly surprising after the economic scare and the scarcity of jobs during the downturn. The result is that many engineering, computing, construction, business, and architecture courses all saw sharp rises in CAO entry points again this year.

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But will these jobs be as plentiful in three or four years' time when the new crop of students graduate? If the economic projections are right, they should be, even when the implications of Brexit have been worked through. That's assuming that the current Government and the next don't succumb to political pressures and let public spending go off the rails again.

However, if the past is a foreign country, the future is even more so. Those graduating in a few years' time will enter into a different world, where many new jobs have yet to be invented. The only certainty they will face is uncertainty as technological advances, globalisation, environmental changes, political factors and ageing populations alter the nature of work.

Whether they go into further or higher education, students will need to lay the groundwork of flexibility to be able to respond quickly to this changing dynamic. We all know that the day of the permanent, life-long job is largely gone in the private sector. So young people will also need to develop the resilience to adapt to frequent job changes, periods of un- or under- employment, as well as periods of having multiple income sources.

An increasing number will work in the 'gig' or 'platform' economy, which is at the early stages of development with 'peer-to-peer' initiatives such as Airbnb, Uber, TaskRabbit and so on. But, as Paris-based think-tank the OECD has pointed out: "Some of these jobs may allow for greater flexibility for the workers but they often lack full coverage of social protection, have lower access to training opportunities and provide weaker career progression than those in more traditional, open-ended jobs."

There is no doubt but that technological changes will destroy many jobs that are now regarded as secure. Digitisation and growing computer power, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, robots and collaborative platforms are radically changing the prospects of what work is needed and by whom, and where and how it will be carried out.

Experts are divided on whether or not this "fourth industrial revolution" will, like previous ones, create an increase in productive and more rewarding jobs elsewhere.

Some argue that for every new high-tech job, more are created in complementary roles. Others are more pessimistic this time and say that many jobs held by people with middle skills will be lost, with no spin-off jobs elsewhere.

Ageing populations will also impact on the kinds of jobs needed in the future.

By 2050, one adult in three in OECD countries will be over 65, and in Japan, Korea and Spain, which are the most aged countries, the ratio will be nearly one adult in two.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny says regularly that Ireland has the ambition to be the best place in the world for small business.

But it also has an ambition to be the best country in which to grow old. We'll see.

At present, Ireland is something of an outlier in terms of its youthful population. While this provides a challenge to the Government in providing school and college places, it is also an opportunity to develop our skills base to attract more foreign direct investment and to grow indigenous industry.

It makes sense to invest in education and research in a small open economy such as ours, which is easily battered by economic storms and increasing globalisation. Years of under-investment in the system, especially during the financial emergency of the past few years, needs to be addressed.

It was all so much simpler years ago. After your Leaving, you got a good job for life, preferably in the civil service, or you were one of the minority who went to college - or if you were really lucky, you got the 'call' to train as a teacher.

Now, Leaving Cert students are faced with an alphabet soup of acronyms to choose from: the CAO with its 1,400 course codes starting with AL801 right through to WD188, or other options such as PLCs run by ETBs or courses run by Solas or Fit. And you have to be sure if you go away from mainstream programmes that your chosen course has been approved by the QQI. Confusing or what?

But the growing variety of different programmes means that there is something suitable for everybody, which can be sourced on that font of all information about courses - qualifax.ie, the one-stop shop for learners. Smartfutures.ie contains useful information about different routes into Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths).

The growth in new educational and training opportunities is long overdue, as we have been obsessed with the notion that only a university degree is good enough. The broadening of apprenticeship routes is taking longer than expected, but is beginning to happen. The fact that some of the new apprenticeships can lead to degrees will help lift their status in a country so fixated with third-level qualifications. Further and higher education should ideally be seen as offering a continuum of opportunities, not a hierarchy with some 'better' than others.

Irish Independent

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