AIT, IT Sligo and polymer industry collaborate to address ‘acute’ skills shortage

The first graduates of a unique degree in polymer processing delivered jointly by Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT) and IT Sligo were conferred recently, addressing what has been a growing skills shortage in the area nationally.

The BEng in Polymer Processing was designed in 2009 in collaboration with First Polymer Training Skillnet to address what was a growing shortage of skills in the polymer (plastics) area. The degree was designed after a series of meetings with the networks steering group, industry groups and selected member companies, as well as a comprehensive survey of the skills needs of the industry which determined that there was an “urgent” need to address a skills shortage.

The course demonstrates the value of open and constructive engagement between industry and academic institutions. This is the only qualification of its kind currently available on the island of Ireland and is delivered online chiefly as a distance learning programme, with some practical sessions scheduled throughout the year.

The polymer industry is an important manufacturing industry in Ireland, with an annual turnover of €1,986 million.

Austin Hanley, Head of School of Engineering at AIT, said that the success of the programme is encouraging of future collaboration: “The skill sets that are combined by these two institutions are appropriately married to meet this market need. On the one hand, AIT’s long-standing leadership as a national centre for polymer development offers the benefits of access to state-of-the-art facilities and to research leaders. On the other hand, IT Sligo’s proven expertise in online programme delivery offers a ready and easily accessible platform for learners in industry. The initial running of the programme has been successful and is encouraging of future collaboration.”

Head of School of Engineering at IT Sligo, Frank Carter, said the online element of the course offered important flexibility for the students, who could remain in employment while undertaking the training required for upskilling. “IT Sligo is the national leader in online education delivery and as the employment market contracts, flexibility in learning has never been more important. We work closely with industry and with other education institutions, where possible, to address employment needs in the workplace and the BEng in Polymer Processing is a tangible example of this type of collaboration in operation,” he said.

First Polymer Training Skillnet and a number of leading companies in the polymer industry initiated the development of the course when an urgent need for skilled graduates in the growing industry become apparent. “We approached IT Sligo because of their excellent track record in online delivery which has made it very accessible to students, many of whom are working full-time. We look forward to continuing our support for this programme, which is fulfilling an acute industry need,” said Catherine Collins, First Polymer Training Skillnet.

Funding for a number of the places on the course was provided by Skillnets. Programme Support Manager with Skillnets, Mat Kujawa, said it is confident that the course is contributing positively to the polymer industry. “Skillnets is delighted to have supported the development and delivery of the BEng in Polymer Processing. This programme, which is the only qualification of its kind in Ireland, has helped address skill shortages experienced by the plastics industry through the delivery of up-to-date, flexible training and we are confident that these newly acquired skills will make a real difference in the workplace.”

Marian Byron, Director of Industrial Products & Services Group with IBEC said that it’s important that academic institutions and industry work together in this way to react to skills shortages in important industries like polymer. “More than 11,000 people are employed in the plastics sector in Ireland and it’s essential that we ensure that our workforce are skilled to the level that employers need in order to sustain that level of employment here,” she said.

Pat Whyte of Irish Micro Mouldings in Inverin in Co Galway, was one of the employers involved in the development of the course and an employee of his company is amongst the first cohort of graduates from the BEng. “This course has filled a huge gap in education and training of much needed plastics engineers in several industries – particularly the medical device area, which was of particular interest to us. We are delighted to have one of our employees Jonathan Martin as one of the first graduates. Since the start of the course Jonathan has taken on more plastics based projects with great gusto and enthusiasm and Irish Micro Mouldings were already reaping the benefits long before the course finished. This was a win-win for all involved,” he said.

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