Half of Irish adults risk exclusion from the workforce because they don't have the digital skills required to thrive.
The economy has become digital and Ireland ranks sixth in Europe for digitisation- the progress being made in terms of connectivity, internet use for activity such as online transactions and communication, advanced and basic digital skills, digital public services and the integration of digital technology in business - according to the EU Digital Economy and Society Index 2018,
Ireland is now ranked number one in Europe for the number of SMEs selling online, for e-commerce turnover and for the percentage of SMEs selling online across borders.
The results quite clearly highlight the impact that both private and public sector entities have had in the past 12 months in improving aspects of digitisation - all of which are of vital importance to Ireland as a small, open economy and a major centre for foreign direct investment (FDI).
While inroads have been made in improving connectivity, we still have a long way to go. We are currently ranked 11th in Europe for connectivity, with 6pc of rural homes having no access to any fixed broadband connection.
The issue of connectivity will have a bearing on our ability to continue improving many of the other aspects of digitisation, as does our performance regarding human capital - that is internet usage, basic and advanced digital skills.
And while Ireland has maintained its top position for the number of graduates in Stem subjects, the index shows that more than half of our adult population are lacking at least basic digital skills - a startling figure.
With this in mind, it is no surprise that businesses and other organisations in Ireland are facing a shortage of ICT (information and communications technology) skills in their work environments, and it is a challenge that is becoming significantly more prevalent as we look towards the near future.
A recent white paper by the Code Institute suggests that, over the next two years, an expected 12,000 jobs are to go unfilled in the Irish ICT sector, which will have a direct knock-on impact on productivity and growth.
It is important to remember that the digital skills crisis is not just an Irish problem. It is a problem facing business and societies across the globe.
We are currently experiencing the most rapid period of technological change since the industrial revolution. This is being driven by a collection of inter- related technologies - fast communication networks, the internet of things, robotics, cloud computing and artificial intelligence.
Long-established systems of production, management and governance are already being redesigned and redefined. Global management consultancy firm McKinsey estimates that automation technologies could affect 50pc of the world economy and $14.6trn (€13.3trn) in wages.
Consequently, the way we work and the types of jobs available are rapidly changing everywhere. This has raised serious questions about the future of employment from a global perspective, with a necessary call-out to policymakers and employers to prioritise the development of digital skills as a way of evolving the workforce for a digital future.
But it is true to say that, due to our reliance on FDI in Ireland and the dominance of technology firms in our economy, Ireland is particularly vulnerable to the impact a sustained digital skills shortage could have on our ability to remain competitive. And a real lack of basic digital skills will not solely be a barrier to employment within technology companies but across all sectors, including traditional industries within which the nature of jobs is changing at an astronomical rate.
Such skills are no longer a luxury but a necessity to securing a job, establishing a business or managing operations, be it in construction, retail or accountancy. The fact is we are currently in danger of excluding thousands of people from the workforce, not because their existing skills are deemed unimportant but because they have not learned how to use them digitally.
Many employees lack the necessary digital behaviours and understanding simply because they did not exist when they were educated or because they are have not received the necessary on-the-job training.
Additionally, young people entering the workforce or recent graduates who have a good basic digital skill-set at the moment may find that their skills are not relevant in five to 10 years' time. Therefore, being digitally literate should now be considered as important as learning to read and write.
And it doesn't stop at education. Continuous training and renewed thinking is the only way our society can remain at pace with the ever-changing digital work environments.
Therefore, to address the digital skills crisis, we at Vodafone believe progress needs to be made across the following three areas: education, workforce and society.
Education: Students should leave school with a basic digital literacy. Technology skills such as basic programming, web development and computational thinking should be core subjects alongside reading, writing and arithmetic. Educators should also impress on students that developing lifelong skills is a lifelong pursuit.
Workplace: Workers need to be given time to develop their digital skills on the job. Training should be mandatory and linked to remuneration.
Society: Challenging assumptions about the development of digital skills regarding subjects like coding and programming, but also developing expertise in design, creativity, management and empathy. Government, businesses and educators should work to broaden the debate beyond experts to the wider public.
Furthermore, in addition to education and training programmes, there is also a need to create the infrastructural shift that is required to allow people to work digitally. For example, business owners and managers are already showing a high preference for flexible working options, highlighting the growing urgency in addressing the issues with rural connectivity.
In Ireland, we are seeing a rise in the number of remote working centres in regional towns and villages providing access to connectivity, allowing people to adapt their working patterns as needed. The Gigabit Hub initiative launched by Siro and Vodafone has now expanded to 13 such hubs across Ireland with the aim of sparking a digital transformation in towns by providing gigabit connectivity to qualifying hubs free of charge for two years.
The recipients receive a one gigabit broadband connection from Vodafone which is powered by Siro's 100pc fibre-optic network. The aim of the initiative is to replicate the success of the Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen, Co Cork, a co-working space and entrepreneurship incubator - the first hub to be connected - which is on course to help create 500 jobs in the west Cork region over the next five years.
It is also fantastic to see the Government prioritise the digital skills shortage with the launch of their Technology Skills 2022 action plan in February. The plan, which encompasses key stakeholders from the public and private sectors who can play a role in advancing Ireland's position on digital skills, provides a strategic approach and a number of robust targets to set the wheels in motion. Such stakeholders include the IDA, the Higher Education Authority, Ibec, Midas and Engineers Ireland.
But all of the signs regarding the changing nature of work point to a harsh reality that requires a dramatic shift in how we view the workplace and our education. If Ireland's workforce doesn't develop the skills and the infrastructure required to meet the needs of a digital society, our economy will lag behind in competitiveness, experience poor growth and high levels of unemployment, and living standards will stagnate.
We therefore need to see plans turned into action. And fast.
And yet, where there is a challenge, there is also opportunity to make positive change and use such technological advancements for the benefit of all citizens equally.
Liam O'Brien is Vodafone Ireland's Director of Strategy and Corporate Affairs