Comment: Tech sector mobilises itself

2 Feb 2005

In the lead-up to Christmas I reported on assertions by individuals such as Bank of Ireland chief economist Dan McLaughlin who warned of a new economic boom that’s under way and how Irish employers will be hard pressed to not only find staff, but retain them as well. In the intervening weeks, there have been indications that the ICT sector itself is preparing for such travails and both employers and employees alike wish to get through this boom comfortably and smoothly. But is anyone asking the graduates?

Headlines in the newspapers are already pointing to fears that demand for skilled ICT graduates will outstrip supply as students shun computing courses. This comes as no surprise.

When the downturn happened in 2001, the bad press that attached itself to the sector persuaded many parents and students to shun careers in technology and this can be borne out by falling demand for these courses in the annual Central Applications Office levies. Two years ago both Trinity College Dublin and various institutes of technology had to sacrifice some of their technology courses due to low demand.

2005 is set to be the year that prosperity returns to the sector, however few realise that the sector has succeeded in holding its own during the downturn. As a whole, however, the Irish software industry remained robust and today represents 33pc of Irish gross domestic product and employs more than 90,700 people, of whom 12,000 are developers. Now we are in 2005, the return to health of the IT sector has prompted growing fears that a skills shortage is approaching and already acute demand has been reported in such fields as Java programming.

Various industry bodies have moved to ensure that both employers and employees in the sector can negotiate an uplift in technology industry fortunes without veering off the course of reality. As the threat of another IT skills shortage reminiscent of 1999 draws closer, Ireland’s software development community has embarked upon an ambitious initiative to create a new recruitment portal specifically for developers and programmers. It is envisaged that the new portal will go live in February.

The Irish Developer Network (IrishDev), with some 1,280 members, is Ireland’s largest professional community of technology workers. The organisation began as a Limerick University user group in 2002 and in 2003 expanded to become the first national developer community in Ireland. In addition to online services and offline activities such as lectures and conferences, IrishDev supports business networking between members and since launching in 2002 more than €1m worth of trade can be attributed to IrishDev co-operation.

According to Fergal Breen of IrishDev, the organisation is responding to a need among the development community for a dedicated platform whereby industry professionals would be
differentiated from other professions and wouldn’t be distracted by practices such
as duplicates of job ads or fake online ads aimed at gathering information.

Breen also argues that IrishDev members are already noticing growing demand for IT workers. “Both locally and internationally in areas such as financial services there are more positions opening up for software developers. This time last year, we noticed a lot of interest by recruitment agencies in IT developers but no one was actually hiring. In the past six months, however, that has changed considerably. The sector has turned around and this is our way of facilitating demand. Right now we are seeing strong demand for Java programmers and people with experience in languages such as BizTalk.”

Breen’s assertions were backed by Barry Paterson, managing director of technology recruitment specialist IT Talent, who says: “We are specifically seeing demand in areas such as Java, Sybase and Oracle skills. In particular, there is a surge of business in the area of data warehousing. We are of the opinion that Ireland will definitely see an IT skills shortage in 2005.”

But what of the graduates that stuck with a genuine interest in technology and weren’t offset by the bad press the sector received over the past four years? It was no doubt a harsh surprise to many that signed up for third-level technology courses at a time when the industry was flourishing only to discover no jobs when they graduated. Organisations such as ICT Ireland over the past two years moved to ensure graduates received placements within ICT companies and succeeded in placing 350 unemployed graduates with ICT companies.

In recent weeks ICT Ireland, in collaboration with the Higher Education Authority, has decided to step up its action by ensuring ongoing placement for undergraduates at third level in ICT companies during their stint in college. For example, defined by relevant future-proofed skillsets, graduates will spend up to 20 hours per week in specific companies. The result of this will be a pool of experienced and skills graduates guaranteed of jobs regardless of the industry’s fortunes, both home and overseas.

Jim O’Hara, general manager of Intel Ireland and a member of ICT Ireland, explains: “The decline in students choosing ICT courses over the past three years is of concern to the ICT industry in matching its future skills and resource requirements. There are a number of industry-wide initiatives addressing this problem on a short-term ongoing basis but this is a prime an opportunity for industry to address this on a medium to long-term basis in collaboration with the education sector. It is envisaged that such a programme will provide a pipeline of graduates for the ICT industry.”

Initiatives such as this will ensure that there will be a focused approach to graduates seeking employment in one of Ireland’s most promising industries. In the meantime, parents and children should realise that the ICT sector, along with pharmaceuticals and other scientific fields are worthwhile, rewarding fields. But ultimately, the decision to choose a profession should be defined not by opportunistic desires for a path to riches but by a genuine enthusiasm and aptitude for a profession.

By John Kennedy