The lack of information technology subjects at secondary school level is a "big gap" that will likely hinder Ireland's workforce and jeopardise research and development investment in the future.

Professor Martin Curley - chair of the European Union's Open Innovation and Strategy Policy Group and a senior vice president at MasterCard - said that is the message he will give to an Industry Research and Development Group conference on innovation. 

But Professor Curley is keen to note that Ireland is currently doing a good job of fostering innovation. "Ireland is actually doing very well in terms of the innovation stakes," he said. "We've actually been reclassified in Europe from an innovation follower to a strong innovator, so right now everything looks rosy and we have remarkable rates of foreign direct investment still coming into Ireland."


The Professor pointed out that the tech industry is currently undergoing massive disruption - and unlike previous disruptions, this is coming from a number of areas at once, including artificial intelligence, machine learning and cloud computing. "We need to be very adaptive and agile, we're at a very unique point in time," he said.

In his view, what is needed is a greater emphasis on digital skills in the country's education sector - particularly at secondary level - to ensure that the country's future workforce can meet the needs of employers. "What we do know is that ICT skills and digital skills are going to be pervasive across society and we need to be preparing our workforce, and particularly our school children, to be successful for this world," he said.

One of the challenges within that, however, is just how changeable the tech industry has become, which means that this generation of school children will be competing for jobs that don't even exist yet. To address this Mr Curley said the country needs a more flexible approach to education which allows for a faster pace of change as things develop. "Probably 50% of the jobs that will exist in ten years, maybe even in five years, we don't know what they are," he said. "Ireland has been recognised for its robust and strong education system but things are moving very fast and we need to figure out some sort of way where we can have a modular approach."

He suggests that this would alongside the current system - running parallel to it - but would allow for a much shorter turnaround when it came to revisions and new content. "I'm not saying we dissipate what we currently have, we actually have a very good foundation, but we almost need a two-track system for the pieces of knowledge and skills that are emerging," he said. "The half life of knowledge is rapidly decreasing." 

Schools are already facing demand to focus on all kinds of areas - from STEM all the way to physical education - while resources are stretched thin by the day-to-day demands of the education sector. That may make any adoption of new topics - especially those on the cutting edge - more difficult, however Mr Curley said schools could embrace technology as part of the process. "There are new technologies emerging, like artificial intelligence, and I see a merge of using teaching in the classroom but also the leveraging of AI," he said. "You're never going to replace teachers, they're the magic in the school system, but technology can enhance that and make us more productive."

Industry also has a role in this process, both in terms of communicating the type of skills people should learn but also in supporting the process of making that happen on the ground. "The first concern is that we need to have the right skills in place to have industry moving forward," Mr Curley said. "There's a much bigger responsibility which is realising that our school children are not just competing in an Irish market, they're also competing in a global market. It's not just about having a skilled workforce in place, it's about a responsibility to our children."

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