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'800 million people globally could be made redundant by technology over the next ten years'

Partnering with the big technology companies to implement a digital apprenticeship scheme would be game changing for Ireland’s economic prospects, writes Gary Gannon.

Gary Gannon Social Democrats councillor with Dublin City Council

THE LOSS OF certain jobs due to technological advancement is an unavoidable consequence of human progress in today’s world.

In Dublin’s north inner city where I grew up, the transition to containerisation and the growth of air travel drove dockers out of work and led to the unravelling of the community.

The Irish Financial Services Centre came along, transforming the docklands in one of Europe’s largest waterfront regeneration projects. Yet the adjacent Sheriff Street community remains one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods. Manual workers face new and emerging threats today.

Redundant

A recent study by McKinsey consultants estimates that 800 million people globally could be made redundant by technology over the next ten years. This is an all too familiar headline and, for most people outside of Silicon Valley, a regular cause of anxiety over what the future might hold.

What happens to the cashier at your local supermarket when automatic tills drive them out of work? What happens to bicycle couriers on our streets when delivery of goods by drone becomes the norm?

You might have a sense that Ireland is bucking this trend already – the official unemployment rate here is 5.8% according the most recent government statistics. But dig a little deeper and the story is very different. The statistics don’t include, for example, people working part-time jobs because they are unable to find full time work.

Ireland’s rate of underemployment is amongst the highest in Europe. Low unemployment statistics also hide the very many people who, although they have full-time jobs, struggle to earn a living wage.

Out of existence

This unfortunate reality is likely to be compounded as digitalisation, robotics, and Artificial Intelligence continue to push many of the most common jobs out of existence.

It’s a fact that those workers most at risk from what is called ‘technological disintermediation’ are unlikely to return to third-level education. This may be due to their age or the fact that they may lack the formal academic building blocks required to thrive in a third-level environment.

The important question for our political leaders today should be: “How do we take a pressing social issue and turn it in to a powerful driver of inclusive prosperity?”

One solution is for the government to embark on a large scale digital vocational training programme aimed at the unemployed and underemployed.

The points race for third level places has made apprenticeships unfashionable and contributed to a view that they are a gateway to low-paying, manual jobs. This notion persists even today; despite an increase in the number of apprenticeships undertaken, traditional craft apprenticeships still account for the vast majority of uptake.

Digital apprenticeships

While the recently introduced apprenticeships in cyber security are a step in the right direction, digital apprenticeships are not being delivered or undertaken at a scale large enough to exploit their true societal potential.

To deliver a robust digital apprenticeship programme at scale, the government needs to partner more heavily with large technology companies. Ireland can build a competitive advantage in this area versus other European countries due to the large number of global technology companies running major operations in Ireland, many of which have their headquarters Dublin’s inner city.

The UK has been proactive in this space, partnering with companies like Google and Facebook to offer industry-designed digital apprenticeship programmes through initiatives like the “Tech Partners” scheme.

Partnering with big tech companies has the additional benefit of branding. Having the Googles, Facebooks, Amazons and Apples of the world lend their significant brand appeal to these schemes would go a long way in enhancing their appeal, particularly to our youth, who suffer from a much higher rate of unemployment at 12%.

Furthermore, the UK has implemented a straightforward means of funding through an “Apprenticeship Levy”. This is aimed at companies with a wage bill of over £3m, and is calculated at 0.5% of their total wage bill. Companies can use this money to provide their own apprenticeship programme; if it hasn’t been used by the company within two years, it is moved to a government-directed fund.

Tech hub

This is not an original idea, nor is it necessarily easy to implement. However, it is an opportunity for which Ireland is particularly well placed as a tech hub with a strong history of innovation.

The government should strongly consider an Apprenticeship Levy similar to that in the UK. Partnering with the big technology companies to implement a digital apprenticeship scheme would be game changing for Ireland’s economic prospects.

It also offers a second chance at a fulfilling career to those that feel condemned to the fringes of economic life in a fast-changing world.

Gary Gannon is the Social Democrats’ Spokesperson on Education Equality and Access. He is a councillor with Dublin City Council and the Social Democrats’ general election candidate for Dublin Central.

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About the author:

Gary Gannon  / Social Democrats councillor with Dublin City Council

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