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Irish Education Not Fit For Purpose
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DateFriday, May 20, 2011
AuthorBarry Alistair

Irish Education Not Fit For Purpose

Irish Tech Employers' Struggle to Find Employees for Hundreds of Open Job Opps Threatens Sector Growth



SEAN_BAKER.pngThe Irish education system has to change if Ireland's position in the global technology scene is to be preserved. That is the unequivocal consensus of five of Ireland's multi-national corporations, including Facebook, Google and Microsoft, who were guests of Engineers Ireland, ICT Ireland, Discover Science & Engineering and the Irish Software Association   at the aptly named Smart Futures Seminar yesterday.


The education debate is being fuelled by the growing, yet unfulfilled demand for software and technology professionals across the Irish tech sector, not just from multinationals, but from indigenous businesses too. There are an estimated 3700 open IT vacancies. Quite simply, the sector is growing and the demand for IT professionals is agressively outstripping supply.



There are several factors contributing to the problem. Firstly, although we're emerging from economic meltdown, the IT sector has remained bouyant with exports in the indigenous software sector reaching 6% in 2009 / 2010, twice the growth experienced in other sectors, translating into employment in our sector. Unfortunately, the sentiment seems not to be shared by the country's software developers who are choosing to stay with their current employers.



Thirdly, since the dotcom meltdown of 2000 - 2001, the intake of students to our university computer science degree courses has been steadily declining leading to a shortage of people entering the industry.



Lastly, since 2005, Ireland has seen many of the world's biggest tech companies establishing EMEA HQs in Ireland, attracted by low corporation tax rates, further fuelling demand.



Regina Moran, CEO of Fujitsu Ireland, explained the scope of the problem. "There are approximately 74,000 people employed in the Irish ICT sector, and 3500 positions have been created since early 2010. But of the companies making up the sectoe, 75% have unresolved vacancies and 25% of them have 20 or more." She concluded: "Anything that prevents growth is a problem. Technology is centre to solving many challenges in the world. New types of jobs ae being created and the supply of talent is critical."

Much of the Smart Futures debate centred arond the 'not fit for purpose' primary and secondary education system. Chairing  the debate, Philip Sharpe, Danu Technologies, said the Smart Future event marked the beginning of a campaign to promote the technology sector as a 'career of choice'. "The sector is vibrant, exciting and growing. It has the capability of employing thousands more however it is recognised that educaton must play a pivotal part."



Sharpe's view was echoed by fellow NDRC (National Digital Research Centre) colleague and Irish technology entrepreneur Sean Baker. Baker outlined the hundreds of software technology companies in Ireland who were doing interesting and pioneering projects. For example, cloud computing, high performance computing, artificial intelligence and social media. Baker said: "All of these comapnies are dependent on engineering skills. Even companies like Paddy Power and Citibank have to develop their own software inhouse because it cannot be bought from the shelf."



But Baker warns that when he gets together in a room full of CEO's, it is not long before the conversation turns to 'skill shortages, visas and leaving cert maths.



In fact, maths is a topic dominating the seminar. Baker points out that it is not a prevalent subject in Computer Science degrees, however a good result in maths at leaving cert level clearly demonstrates the ability to think logically. And, it seems, it is here that the course of education is remiss.


JOHN_POWER.pngAccording to John Power, Director General of Engineers Ireland, the 21st century is calling for new skills to solve new world problems. "There has to be a fundamental change in Irish education," he said. "In the US, leading organisations including Adobe, Apple, Cisco, Dell, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, HP, Intel, Microsoft and Oracle came together with the American Institute of Management to examine 21st century learning. They found a profound gap between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they need in typical 21st century communities and workplaces."

Power added: "To successfully face rigorous higher education coursework, career challenges and a globally competitive workforce, classroom environments must align with real world environments by fusing the three Rs (Reading, Writing and Arithmetic) with the and the four Cs: critical thinking and problem solving; communication, collaboration; and creativity and innovation."


Neil O'Herlihy, Head of Sales Operations at Google, and Cormac Keenan, User Operations Manager at Facebook, agreed. O'Herlihy replied: "We don't know what the problems and challenges of the future are going to be for certain. This is why we hire people from a range of educatonal backgrounds. At Google, critical thinkers and problem solvers are very important. We look for graduates to demonstrate creativity, but creativity which is outside of their academic lives."



So with employers now demanding a different breed of people, how is the Irish educaton system going to adapt?


Kevin Marshall, Head of Education, Microsoft, believes the Irish system has a junior cert which is not fit for purpose, and a leaving cert which is entirely focused on points. Whilst reform is desperately needed, Ireland is not good at walking the walk. "As a society we need to set targets and hold ourselves accountable. Before a dialogue can begin for the future, an answer has to be found for 'what is the education sector supposed to do'," he said.


Marshall also believes project based and portfolio learning techniques in a smaller number of core competencies are the way forward, "Students don't need thirteen subjects at the age of 16."



Of course, a paradigm shift will take time. Until then, where will the skills gap be plugged? It is a known fact that companies like Facebook have been recruiting in Eastern Europe, bringing hundreds, if not thousands, of skilled non-nationals to Ireland. Of course, whilst this is better than Facebook taking their business elsewhere it is far from an ideal situation.


Jim Hargis of the Inner City Employment Service says his team are working with a large number of people who are educated at 3rd and 4th level, but do not have the technical knowledge associated with an engineerng or computing background. He believes that, for a relatively small investment, transition courses could be rolled out to assist the country's unemployed, particularly from the construction sector, to retrain and stop them leaving the country.


The good news in this regard was brought by Higher Education Authority Chief Executive Tom Boland, who explained this process is already in motion and will be announced by Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD next week with the introducton of 'Springboard', a programme aimed at providing thousands of places on higher education courses, half of which will be ICT disiplines.



Paul Sweetman, Director at the Irish Software Association, believes there are two distinct opportunities in existence. The first is the sheer number of jobs available now and which can be created in the future. The second is a social and economic opportunity to make Ireland a global leader in ICT terms. But Sweetman also acknowledged they could only be harnessed with collaboration amongst industry and education. "Other countries have become most effective when their industry groups have coem together to solve a problem - this is what Smart Futures is all about."


Peter Brabazon of Discover Science and Engineering, said: "With immediate effect, a three month pilot campaign will begin to promote subjects at primary and 2nd level children. Kids influence kids, and working with industry we hope to share with these kids exactly what it's like to be 'in the industry."



Closing out the conference, Sean Gorman, Secretary General at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, said: "Today has painted a clear picture. The government needs industry working together and industry working with government. Nobody should be working in silos and that includes the various Government departments which I intend to work closely with."







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