Manufacturers and colleges join up to plug workplace skills gaps

By Joe Dermody

Cork and Kerry manufacturers and the region’s main educational institutions have joined forces to make huge progress in developing a talent pipeline for future job creation across Munster, notably in science and engineering.

With just one year having passed since the formation of Regional Skills South West, new tailored work-focused study programmes are being rolled out in Tralee IT and in several ETBs.

UCC, CIT and others are adding new industry-focused modules on BIM (business information modeling), Lean training, project management, validation and robotics into their existing degree programmes in science, engineering and other disciplines.

Around 60 manufacturers are on board, including the likes of Stryker, Boston Scientific, Borg Warner, Tricel, Dairymaster, Depuy Synthes, MSD, Alps Electrical, EPS and Liebherr, among many others.

At the first Skills Forum meeting in December 2016, all of the leading post-secondary educators in the South West instantly saw the value of the programme.

When the talk focused on boosting educational pathways for STEM and other workplace-focused skills, it seems everyone was on the same page.

“If this was just going to be a talk shop, I wouldn’t have been interested,” said David Quaid engineering manager, advanced operations, Stryker, and a major advocate of what the Regional Skills South West programme is delivering to businesses in the region.

“The openness of the universities, ITs and ETBs has been great. They have been very quick to modify courses to suit what industry needs. Now we need to back them up and get people on the courses that will be rolling out from here to September.

“The courses are off to a flying start. It is great that it has taken just one year from articulating the nature of the skills gap. The rubber is really starting to hit the road here. It has come about just from people sitting together in one room, and now we’re all speaking in one voice. All of these companies are working together, and the colleges share the same goals.

“There has been a real partnership approach. A key thing we are doing with the education piece is to ensure there is more than one way into the workforce. We’re covering all education levels.

“We are not forgetting about the ETBs; we’re looking to get entry levels from all spectrums across all industries. We were determined that this would be an agnostic programme.”

Having said that, at the first open events, the need to promote STEM skills to young people repeatedly came up as a common thread to virtually all industries.

While the new course offerings are an immediate boost, the South West is also promoting STEM careers in primary and secondary schools and beyond.

And Barbara O’Gorman of Boston Scientific and Nick Belton of BorgWarner have developed the ‘STEM Cradle to Career Continuum’ to bring focus to promoting these key skills across a range of age categories. The group has identified 10-15 as a critical age for influencing career path choices.

“If you’re going to attract more students into STEM careers, you need to get to them as early as possible,” said David Quaid. “We are training STEM sector employees to go into primary schools for an hour and show students the exciting potential for this sector. For example, an engineer might explain the science that goes into getting a rocket off the ground.”

From the end of March, Cork ETB (cork.etb.ie, formerly Fás) will be offering a new course in Computer Numerical Control, covering skills around automation and robotics identified as a gap by the South West partners. From September, this will be available as a night course, with a heavy focus on engineering.

The South West Manufacturing & Engineering Regional Skills group is chaired by Patrick Buckley, managing director of EPS Group, the Mallow-based waste water treatment company.

EPS takes in up to 20 transition year students each year.

At any one time, there might be three or four young people on the premises, learning from experienced staff.

“Similarly, a lot of companies have people coming in on graduate programmes,” said Mr Buckley. “When you bring people in, you give them a storyboard with a lot of company specifics. You give them an induction course and a mentor. You try to avoid just giving them low-grade tasks.

“This type of learning is a longer burn, but creating educational placements is a nut we need to crack if we want to develop a conveyor belt of talent. Of course, safety is a priority for summer placements in a manufacturing company.

Then there’s identifying a mentor.

“A big question for most Irish businesses is the shortage of talent. It is always a challenge. When we hosted the South West forum, there were around 40 companies from all sorts of industries. They all agreed that we’ll need Government help with setting up educational placements in the workplace.

“With the South West skills group, all of the manufacturing companies are working together to develop skills and talent in the region. We know that people will move around from one company to another. That’s to be expected. The whole ethos of this initiative is to ensure that the whole Cork/Kerry region has the skills and talent it needs, particularly in engineering and science.”

This industry-education partnership was formed with the help of Siobhán Bradley, Regional Skills Forum manager for the South West.

She led the roundtable discussions at which the manufacturing companies and the colleges discussed approaches to plugging workplace skills gaps.

At one end of the spectrum, Springboard courses are also working to resolve some of the entry level gaps. At the other end, companies are also inviting staff to attend evening courses to gear themselves up for middle management roles.

And the successful evolution in the numerous approaches to plugging skills gaps will become more apparent in the coming years as new graduates emerge, notably those in science and engineering courses, with a raft of new highly relevant skills.

“Up to now, the standard engineering course doesn’t do enough around areas like the commercial management of a project, or automation and robotics, validation and regulatory standards,” Patrick Buckley said. “The colleges were very responsive to us when we outlined the need to add these modules.

“A lot of companies are very enthusiastic about how this is developing. What we’re doing now is encouraging other businesses to get behind these courses, to get people back to college in night courses. We also want to get more businesses involved in designing future programmes.”

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