A wake-up call for government on digital skills
By Will Goodbody, Science & Technology Correspondent
As journalists, we generally try to deal in facts.
But sometimes, anecdotal evidence is far more compelling and indeed trustworthy.
I regularly meet the managers of technology business operating here – from massive global multinationals, to tiny early stage start-ups.
As well as probing what’s going well for them, and their plans for the future, I often make a point of asking them about the challenges they are facing.
For some, it’s scaling rapidly, adding customers or building product.
For others, it’s finance, or finding suitable office space.
But consistently, pretty much all will mention securing suitable talent in sufficient numbers as a notable issue.
That’s because, regardless of what the government or its agencies might try to have us believe, there is a growing serious shortage of good home-grown ICT talent here in Ireland.
Sure, companies like Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Paypal etc, who run European, Middle East and/or African customer facing operations from here need well-qualified people with strong foreign language skills, and therefore must look abroad to fill many of those roles.
But why should any tech firm operating in Ireland need to recruit overseas to fill the bulk of their network engineering, data science, developer, design, systems admin, or any other IT vacancies?
Shouldn’t we be able to fill them from our pool of talent here?
We are, after all, the digital hub of Europe?
The blunt reality is, however, that we don’t have enough highly skilled graduates coming out of our universities and colleges to meet the demand.
This despite still having over 8 per cent of the working population unemployed.
Of course third level institutions are part of the problem.
Drop out rates from ICT courses are higher than normal, and many IT managers tell me that increasingly the content of those courses is out of touch with what companies are looking for.
But to be fair, colleges can only work with the talent they take in from schools – which anecdotal evidence suggests isn’t what it should be.
That’s why today’s survey and report from the Trinity Access 21 (TA21) programme is such a wake-up call.
The three year project, funded by Google, trains teachers in how best to teach Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects, and in particular Computer Science (CS).
The results after the first year are positive, with two thirds of the teachers who went through the scheme introducing new STEM/CS content in class and overall participants reporting positive feedback.
But they also claimed they could achieve considerably more, if suitable resources were in place to enable them to.
60% of schools that participated in TA21 reported having little access to the technology needed to make a real impact in their school, for example – with some schools reporting that they have no wifi or even internet access.
The teachers complained that the short class duration and “teaching to the test” mentality endemic in the Irish education system was stifling the freedom required to learn in a collaborative, analytical manner – exactly the way IT professionals learn and work.
Together, Trinity Access and Google describe the situation as shocking, and have called for fundamental reform.
It’s a damning indictment of the state of our education system – particularly at secondary level.
And what’s worse, it’s taken a €1.5 million investment by a private company, collaborating with a third level institution, to point it out and start to put it right.
It can be fixed, says TA21, by introducing computer science at primary level, and continuing it as a subject right through secondary to Leaving Cert examination level.
There also needs to be investment in ICT infrastructure in schools, it says, with a move away from the “computer room” approach to one where ICT is part of each and every classroom.
Teachers also need to be given increased opportunities to participate in accredited STEM/CS continuous professional development, the projects claims.
And it proposes that class times need to be extended to at least one hour from the current norm of 40 minutes.
PROGRAMME FOR GOVERNMENT
The new Programme for Government does, to be fair, finally recognise the need for some of these measures and pledges a Leaving Cert CS subject and a coding course at Junior Cert level (which isn’t new).
But that’s about the extent of it, and you could be forgiven for being ever so slightly skeptical that these pledges will even be honored.
And to make matters worse, we now know that despite all the promises of the election campaign, the plan to roll out high speed broadband to every premises in the country has been delayed.
That means many school students remain deprived of decent quality connectivity at home, and perhaps in some cases even in school (although the government says all 780+ post-primary schools have now been connected to 100Mbps broadband).
Meanwhile, other countries are starting to eat our lunch when it comes to attracting and nurturing IT investment and training young people up to fill the resulting jobs.
Schools in Britain, for example, are now into their second full academic year of having coding as a part of the formal curriculum.
When all those skilled children start leaving school, it will inevitably provide a glut of talent, which will make our nearest neighbour a very attractive place to build and expand an ICT business.
The technology industry is known for being very agile, and for moving rapidly.
Governments, on the other hand, aren’t – particularly minority administrations, with one eye focused on the next election.
But if Ireland is to retain its moniker of the “Silicon Valley of Europe”, and the jobs and investment which accompany it, it needs to start doing more to nurture home-grown ICT talent.
And it needs to do it quickly.
Comments welcome via Twitter to @willgoodbody