Can Irish Workers Respond to the Demand for ICT Skills?

In 2016, global tech companies continue to target Ireland as their base of operations but do future generations of employees have the necessary IT skills to snap up the job roles on offer?

A key indicator of an economic recovery is the employment rate. As of January 2016, the employment rate in Ireland stood at 8.6%. To put that into context, in January 2011 the unemployment rate was 14.5%.

Ignoring the elephant in the room that is the number of people that have emigrated in the last 8 years, it’s safe to say that job creation is a contributing factor to the fall in that percentage. But in which industries are new jobs being created and what skills must future generations of Irish workers equip themselves with to keep the country competitive and attractive to foreign direct investment (FDI)?

Overseas Employers

According to data from the Irish Development Authority (IDA), total employment at overseas companies now stands at 187,056 people, the highest level on record.

The organisation, which is the country’s main promoter of FDI, announced in January 2016 that IDA client companies created just under 19,000 jobs on the ground last year across a range of sectors, with every region of Ireland posting net gains in jobs. Net jobs were 11,833 compared to 7,131 in the same time period last year – representing a year-on-year rise of 66%.

Here is a selection of the types of roles that are currently on offer to the Irish workforce and the entry requirements needed to secure them.

Facebook’s New Data Centre

Besides construction jobs, Facebook’s recently announced data centre will immediately employ 40 people once open. A role that could be based here is the Business Integrity Associate/Data Analyst role that the company is currently advertising for.

Work in analytics for a social media company requires a background in a quantitative or technical field, but with experience working with large data sets. This is hardly surprising considering that the company boasted 1.44 billion monthly active users in March of last year. But this is just the practical experience recommended; the university education requirements place great importance on maths and computer science subjects. A PHD is listed as “an asset but not essential”.

Regeneron’s Investment in Industrial Operations and Product Supply

The life sciences company announced it was investing an additional €314 million in its Limerick Industrial Operations and Product Supply (IOPS) bioprocessing campus and adding another 200 jobs. One such job currently advertised is a Senior IT Business Analyst role.

Knowledge of ERP (enterprise resource planning), business process management software and analytical tools is a key requirement for this role. When it comes to education, a qualification in Business Analysis or Project Management is needed and an understanding of the software development processes is essential.

Slack Sets Up Headquarters in Dublin

Slack, the business app that facilitates efficient team communication and file sharing for organisations, is setting up its European headquarters in the Digital Hub in Dublin.  As well as extensive sales experience, the company’s Technical Account Manager position requires a “deep knowledge of programming languages in the context of security and technical discussions”. A BA discipline is not specified but one can gather that to understand programming languages “deeply” a qualification in computer science would be a good start.

A Common Trend

Although each of the roles mentioned are spread across different companies and even different industries, there is a common trend of requirements emerging, centred in the fields of computer science and data analytics. Courses in this discipline are available from a number of third level institutions in Ireland currently. Most of the main universities offer computer science degree courses with a number of institutions offering a level 6/7 conversion or foundation courses.

According to the CAO (Central Applications Office), computer applications and computer science-related courses typically require between 300-400 points from school leavers during 2015’s offer rounds. One of the most popular degrees in analytical science currently demands 460 points.

However, there are alternative routes to entry with institutions such as NCI focusing on teaching analytics as post grad courses in diploma or masters form. These institutions may appeal to graduates that have come from another discipline but are looking to increase their employment potential.

The Progression Problem

Supply of relevant education at achievable points requirements currently isn’t a problem but new information published by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) has revealed a new concern.

‘A Study of Progression in Irish Higher Education’ published in January 2016, focuses on the progression of students from their first year of study in 2012/13 to their second year of study in 2013/14. The report showed that Computer Science has the highest rate of non-progression at level 8 (degree level).

Mr Tom Boland, CEO of the HEA commented that “While the figures are stable over time and comparable with competitor countries they are a source of concern. Further research into the issues surrounding student retention is necessary so that by understanding the causes we can deal with them.”

One institution that had a low progression rate for its mechanical engineering course gained some media attention after suggesting it would consider raising the maths entry requirement for programmes. This followed the discovery of a correlation between students’ low performance in higher level Leaving Cert maths and a failure to progress at third level.

More than Maths

Although there is no doubt that many factors that have to be examined in order to solve the drop-out rate, some experts believe that the problem goes deeper than some students’ struggle with mathematics.

Mary Cleary of the Irish Computer Society (ICS) recently said in the Irish Times that “Without any formal exposure to ICT in secondary school, students’ understanding of technology is as consumers, not creators or developers.” She also put forward the idea that students were unaware of what computer science courses entailed, going as far as to say “A love of Snapchat and Twitter does not make children digital natives”.

Although Ireland’s corporate tax rate is an attractive incentive for foreign tech companies, they can’t set up shop without qualified staff. One solution that is discussed time and time again is introducing students to information communications technology at primary school level.

Early Introduction to ICT

Currently in Ireland, there are a number of schemes that are working to introduce programming skills to young people as early as possible.

Since 2007, the Irish Software Engineering Research Centre have run an education and outreach programme that teaches students Scratch. This is a visual programming language that creates interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art and shares these creations on the web. It was developed by MIT in the US. They also run an annual Irish competition.

Another stakeholder is ICS who are behind Cliste, Ireland’s first digital skills programme for primary schools that seeks to “engage, inspire and educate with IT-based lesson plans, resources and schemes of work – all designed for Ireland’s primary teachers”.

Perhaps one of the most famous organisations fighting for this cause is the CoderDojo, a global movement of free, volunteer-led, community-based programming clubs for young people. At a Dojo, young people, aged between 7 and 17, learn how to code, develop websites, apps, programs, games and explore technology in an informal and creative environment. As well as programming skills the students also gain an introduction to remote working, team working, debugging and problem solving.

CEO, Mary Moloney, spoke to Virgin Media Business about how the CoderDojo is helping young people access a vital service that will equip them with the necessary skills for the future.

“In every country in the world you look at the skillset that is going to be most relevant for the next generation and the reality is that tech skills are just fundamental. They are as crucial as reading and writing now and they are pretty much crucial to every aspect of life. By denying kids the access to these skillsets you are making them less relevant and less likely to succeed in life,” says Moloney.

Moloney also explains that other generations will also depend on future workforces having the necessary IT skills:

“The urgency is we’re relying on this next generation to use technology to do amazing things that we can’t currently imagine or conceive of, as in the same way 20 years ago we couldn’t conceive what [the likes of] Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates would actually deliver.”

Dojos are set up by many different people in communities all over the world, and in some cases the children have set them up themselves. One trend that the organisation is happy to see is businesses hosting Dojos and encouraging their staff to become mentors for the students. Moloney explains that there are benefits for both mentors and students in these cases.

“Those offices that open up their doors and make their offices available to those kids and have them sitting in their bean bags and hanging out in their canteens and enjoying their free refreshments of course they’re going to have a very positive association with those organisations. It may not influence their career decisions, but it’s a nice way for them to see a work environment.”

Businesses that host their own Dojo might even be meeting the future CEOs of the world without even knowing it.“Ironically every time I’ve seen a major business leader meet one of our young kids and they say ‘why don’t you work for me when you’re grown up?’ And almost without exception the kids turn around and say ‘why don’t you come and work for me when I grow up?’”, says Moloney.