Engineering, arts and starts: the future just isn’t what it used to be
Do we need to rethink how we funnel students into career choices based on CAO points?

Engineering, arts or entrepreneurship: the future isn’t what it used to be

8 Aug 2016

With the Leaving Cert results and CAO offers just around the corner, it is an anxious time for students and their parents. It is also the time of their lives. But, don’t worry, the kids are going to be alright, says John Kennedy

Recently, my 13-year-old niece asked me to write a letter that her school would place in a time capsule that would be only opened when she finished school. She will be 17 going on 18 then, about to do her Leaving Cert and embark on a whole new life’s journey. It got me thinking: what kind of advice would I give my 18-year-old self?

From the vantage point of it being more than two decades since I sat my Leaving Cert it boils down to four words: “Fear nothing, experience everything.” But that’s easy for me to say now. Now that I have more respect for time and more than a few regrets.

And time is everything, especially in the coming weeks, as Leaving Cert results arrive and swift decisions have to be made on CAO points and college placements.

A lazy, dreamy, halcyon summer will transform into a hive of unforgettable activity, debs balls and goodbyes and, within weeks or months, home could be a new city, and new acquaintances at college may become friends for life.

It will be a whirlwind. It will be the time of their lives.

You have to admit, though, it does seem kind of preposterous to expect 17 or 18-year-olds to compress five or six years of learning into a few exams where, in mere hours, memory, rather than practical application of knowledge, gets you the grades and the precious points that could determine how your life and career play out.

It seems equally bizarre to also expect a 17 or 18-year-old to make choices for college courses for careers so early in life when so much could and will change.

But that’s the system and, for all intents and purposes, the system works. And maybe those who devised it have always known the value of time. Because time is precious.

Adding up the points for new opportunities

This year, some 117,453 students across Ireland sat their Leaving Cert exams, and 35pc of these took the higher paper in maths. That was 19,202 who took the higher maths paper, up from 10,435 in 2011.

At a time when Google is one of the biggest employers in Dublin, a college dropout called Mark Zuckerberg a universal role model, and STEM careers are apparently more glamorous than law or business, the policy-makers must be in nirvana that at least higher level maths numbers are adding up.

But so much has changed. In the early 1990s, things just seemed so much more defined, Nirvana was actually a band then, and a job in a bank or as a teacher seemed a sensible route for many. Only the real brainboxes opted for hard subjects like computer science or engineering.

At that time, you could make a college choice that would define your future career outlook indefinitely. At least you thought so then. For me, the term entrepreneur didn’t enter the popular lexicon in Ireland until the turn of the century. Until then, they were defined as sole traders in secondary school business books, who had to consider light and heat above wages in ledgers.

But in the second decade of the 21st century, many careers – in fact, our very notion of what a career is – are very different. In fact, many job descriptions that are all the rage in 2016 didn’t exist 10 years ago: social media managers, SEO managers, app developers, big data analyst, cloud engineers … Oh wait, there’s more: Uber driver is a job description, and just you wait until the world doesn’t have enough drone operators.

On the point of career longevity, apparently, some of us will have four or five careers in our working lives. I can already attest that people I know who began in their 20s as earnest young business executives, lawyers and journalists are now school teachers, some are filmmakers. Others are looking into lifestyle careers and diversified farming and artisan foods.

So, what comfort is any of that to a teenager entering the adult world, except to say nothing will turn out as you expect. And that may be a good thing.

Despite the drumming of 13 years’ education and the best moral guidance your folks could muster, at 18 no one hands you a further handbook on how to live your life. It’s up to you.

For your parents, that is terrifying. For you, it should be as thrilling. But lots of things will change; things you can control and things you cannot.

Standing on the edge of control

Things like the Leaving Cert and CAO results, things that used to define us, are now mere hints at our tomorrows. People have infinitely more freedom to define themselves, to be themselves, and to even reinvent themselves.

Choices for college should be made to give you as wide a field of opportunity as possible so you have more control. And in the digital age, everything from engineering and computer science to even arts and business studies all actually add up. The digital enterprise of today is a confection of all of these pursuits. It is not just STEM any longer, it is science, technology, engineering, arts and maths (STEAM).

Take 18-year-old Steve Jobs in California in the 1970s. His college choice was calligraphy, of all things. He dropped out, and the rest is history, as his fevered mind and frenetic energy conceived devices like the Mac, the iPhone and the iPod.

Earlier this year, I met the then-president of UCC Dr Michael Murphy, who said he would actually encourage some of his students to drop out for a time if they wanted to start their own businesses and return to education whenever they chose.

Famous and noteworthy college dropouts who have shaped the digital age include the aforementioned Apple co-founder, the late Steve Jobs, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

None of this is to suggest dropping out should be on the agenda, but it is also a reality we need to consider.

For example, one of the problems haunting computer science education in Ireland is that up to 80pc of students in maths-related courses are failing to progress beyond their first year in college, according to the Higher Education Authority. In some cases, students need to re-learn maths just to keep up and the potential solution could be to raise the maths standard before students take on these courses.

Computer science in 2016 ought to be a guaranteed meal ticket to a life of high pay, travel and opportunity, but are we forcing the wrong people into these courses before they are ready just because technology is in vogue? Are they too young or not prepared?

It goes back to my point earlier, after running the gauntlet of the Leaving Cert, are we forcing students to make choices before they are really sure it is something they want?

Never underestimate youth

When I did my Leaving Cert, we didn’t really have role models to speak of in Ireland, except U2 and GAA All-Stars. And the Eurovision. And Glenroe.

The Berlin Wall had toppled in the late 1980s, the Troubles raged until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Even as the Omagh bombing threatened to shatter that fragile peace, our minds couldn’t conceive we were in the last decade of the most violent century in human history. 9-11 was still around the corner and the spectre of the lone-wolf killers of today might have been something from a Grisham or King novel.

The establishment in Ireland was all about church and politics and that was excruciatingly boring until we found out Bishop Eamon Casey had a love child and we learned of Charlie Haughey living opulently like Louis XIV. Sadly, more grim stuff was to follow, as we learned that the so-called moral guardians of the nation were anything but moral.

Father Ted and The Commitments helped to break the mould a bit on the cultural front. Everyone wore Wranglers. Guys would lurch shabbily into the cinemas with their girlfriends and then swagger out afterwards thinking they were Tom Cruise while the rest of us sniggered and sneered “gobshite” in their wake.

The truth was that, in a poor economy, there is very little to do but sneer.

In the intervening years of Celtic Tiger, property downturns, smartphones, the Web Summit, Panti Bliss and the same-sex marriage referendum, we have changed.

But what has changed the most is the young people. They have in spades today what most of us didn’t have as 18-year-olds: self-belief. And they are defining themselves long before structures like the Leaving Cert or CAO define them.

Would you believe that it is more than eight years since two young Irish brothers, Patrick and John Collison, sold their first company Auctomatic to Live Current Media, when Patrick was 19 and John 17, for $5m? Their current company Stripe, which was founded in 2010, was recently valued at $5bn after raising close to $100m from investors including card giant Visa.

I remember listening to the radio the morning the Collisons sold their first company and how Patrick said they were turned down by Enterprise Ireland because they could not match the funding. Asked what he would do with his new fortune, Collison told RTE Radio: “First thing I’m going to do is fill my fridge.”

We have to believe in our young and I’m glad to say Enterprise Ireland is far more entrepreneurially-attuned these days.

The self-belief I am talking about is evident in young people like Harry McCann, Ciara Judge and Lee Campbell, founders of the Digital Youth Council.

And look how Irish schoolgirls Lauren Boyle and Niamh Scanlon were respectively named EU Digital Girl of the Year for 2014 and 2015.

These young people are more emboldened and more empowered than previous generations. They are their own role models.

They will sit their Leaving Cert exams and will probably have their pick of the CAO listings.

But they won’t be defined by these structures. Because they’ve already started defining themselves.

And that’s the best students and their worried parents could ever wish for at a time when the future isn’t what it used to be.

The kids are going to do just fine.

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Career choices image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy
By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years. His interests include all things technological, music, movies, reading, history, gaming and losing the occasional game of poker.

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