Digital learning to ensure future success

Ensuring that Ireland is prepared for the digital revolution will allow the nation to compete effectively on the world stage with other small open economies, says Karen O’Connor from Datapac.

Today, 2 December 2021, marks the 20th anniversary of World Computer Literacy Day. First observed in 2001, this day aims to promote awareness of computer literacy across the globe. Twenty years on, remaining attentive to this issue is more critical than ever. 

Economic, social and cultural systems worldwide are growing ever more digitised and the global economy continues to make strides into what has been dubbed “the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. Fueled by the adoption and integration of digital technologies, digital inclusion across our society is vital to ensure that everyone gets a fair opportunity to engage with their environment on an equal playing field. Ensuring that Ireland is prepared for this revolution will allow the nation to compete effectively on the world stage with other small open economies.

“A shortage of staff with sufficient ICT skills is hindering the digital transformations of many businesses nationwide, particularly SMEs and those in rural areas”

However, a lack of digital skills continues to be an obstacle to businesses in Ireland and across Europe, and in 2020 the World Economic Forum identified that Europe had a shortage of 756,000 ICT professionals.

The domino effect of digital exclusion

Digital exclusion refers to the multitude of socio-economic and cultural factors which contribute to certain groups in society being excluded from an increasingly digital world. The European Commission published the results of its 2021 Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) last month, which showed that although Ireland performs above the EU average for advanced digital skills, the basic digital skills of the population are slightly lower than the EU average – 53pc compared to 56pc. 

The negative impact of digital exclusion can also be felt at the business level. A shortage of staff with sufficient ICT skills is hindering the digital transformations of many businesses nationwide, particularly SMEs and those in rural areas.

Some of the primary elements contributing to digital exclusion in Ireland are poor broadband access or speeds, which are more essential than ever in the age of remote and hybrid working and the decentralised workplace; and early access to ICT education, which is increasingly important to compete in the modern workforce. Other barriers to digital literacy include lack of ICT skills and confidence, particularly among older generations, as the area constantly evolves; and disparate access to ICT equipment across different groups in society.

Innovative initiatives to ensure digital success

The European Commission’s recent DESI 2021 report showed the proportion of ICT graduates in Ireland is 7.8pc of all graduates, and is significantly higher than the EU average (3.9pc). While this is certainly going in the right direction, there is still a significant digital skills gap in Ireland that needs to be addressed.

At Datapac, we strongly believe collaboration between the education and technology sector is essential to closing this gap. That’s why – way back in in 2004 – we took the lead in this area and began working closely with third-level institutions to provide high quality work placement opportunities for students and graduates. Over this time, we have invested in excess of €1.7 million in supporting the initiative and over 200 individuals have successfully passed through our doors. We have established strong links with a number of leading third level institutions around the country, including Waterford IT, IT Carlow, University of Limerick and NUIG. To address the root of talent development, we need to engage with students long before they reach third-level education and encourage more young people to choose technology-related programmes when it comes to their CAO application. Following the success of the work placement programme, we extended the programme to Transition Year classes, as we understand the importance of addressing digital exclusion as early as possible.

Gender balance is key

The DESI report also shows that Ireland performs above the EU average for the indicator on female ICT specialists (21pc vs 19pc). At Datapac, we invest heavily in our diversity and inclusion initiatives and our positive action means that we have achieved a very balanced profile in terms of gender across levels and disciplines. We acknowledge, however, that gender balance, although making inroads, is still an issue in our industry. I have been happy to share our learning and experiencing as facilitator at a number of industry conferences both in Europe and the US in a bid to contribute to continued positive strides in this area.

The government is also proactively supporting women in STEM with its aim to increase the number of females taking STEM subjects in the Leaving Certificate by 40pc and its intention to make Ireland the best country in Europe for STEM by 2026.

According to the index, a substantial gender gap still remains in advanced digital skills across Europe, where just 19pc of ICT specialists and a third of STEM graduates are female. A collaborative effort between stakeholders is vital to promote women in the industry. It’s also important for young girls to have role models in tech and to be educated about and empowered by the women who are leading the way across all areas of the industry. After all, you can’t be what you can’t see.

Promoting digital inclusion

Digital inclusion goes beyond education and the world of work, as technology can enrich people’s lives across the board. As a committed partner of both Wexford Festival Opera and the National Opera House, Datapac is enabling the roll-out of the Synapses initiative, using the power of technology to bring the opera to Wexford care homes and day centres. Synapses is about making connections between audiences, members of the Festival and the wider community, no matter their age or location. It allows the Festival to stay connected to its audiences and to share its art with those who may not be able to make it to the theatre, or have not done so yet.

Datapac understands the importance of digital literacy to the success of Ireland’s digital future and is committed to bridging IT skills gaps and cultivating the next generation of tech professionals. The 2021 DESI index shows that Ireland ranks 5th of the 27 EU countries for overall digital progress. It’s vital that Irish businesses, government and educational providers all collaborate to ensure Ireland can play a leadership role for the advocacy of computer literacy and digital advancement for citizens of all ages and abilities.

Dr Karen O’Connor
Dr Karen O’Connor is general manager in charge of ICT Services and Solutions at Datapac.