The tech ambassador for Ireland’s mid-west, Dr Janice O’Connell, has developed a strategy that the rest of Ireland should heed.
“It’s about smart working,” Dr Janice O’Connell, tech ambassador for the mid-west of Ireland, says evenly when I talk about Limerick’s status as Ireland’s economic comeback kid.
Like the rest of Ireland, employment in Limerick, Shannon and the wider mid-west is returning to peak levels, a huge contrast to where Ireland – and, more specifically, Limerick – had been less than a decade ago.
‘There are thousands of people out there with qualifications and aptitude’
– JANICE O’CONNELL
In 2008, the global recession began and a year later in 2009, Limerick and its surrounding region were dealt a body blow when computer manufacturing giant Dell decided to cease manufacturing in the city with the loss of 1,900 jobs.
It was a bleak time. But, rather than surrender, Limerick’s leaders gathered their forces and put their shoulders to the wheel.
The result is that, within nine years, Limerick has reversed its misfortunes and is now focused on going from full employment to optimal employment where everyone’s talents are brought to bear.
How the mid-west was won
As we revealed in our interviews with IDA Ireland’s mid-west regional manager, Enda McLoughlin, and Bank of Ireland’s Pat Carroll recently, Limerick’s renaissance was not down to luck. It was down to strategy, teamwork and joined-up thinking – qualities sought after in many aspects of Irish life.
Limerick and the mid-west have not only recovered. They have excelled.
Limerick is now a diverse powerhouse of technology, financial services, medical devices, automotive tech, internet of things, pharmaceuticals and more.
As tech ambassador for Ireland’s mid-west at Innovate Limerick, O’Connell has a pedigree in technology that has seen her rise in her career as a software engineer to become head of the IT department at Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT).
Her focus is on turning Limerick into an innovation hub that fosters smarter working but also captures the momentum of a swirling tide of start-ups, SMEs and multinationals to create something unique.
“In 2012, we started Limerick for IT and Limerick for Engineering as a way of pulling together a network of people from academia, local industry, local government, to find out what we can do to generate jobs in Limerick.
“We wanted to generate awareness and grow Limerick and the surrounding region as a destination to locate and bring jobs.”
O’Connell and her colleagues tapped into a wider network of multinationals to find ways of upskilling people, including companies such as HP, Johnson & Johnson, SAP, Kerry Group and General Motors.
One example was the creation of a tech upskilling course with SAP that would translate into jobs in other organisations. “We created a mass of people educated in a particular technology and this spawned jobs in Johnson & Johnson and Kerry Group, for example.”
The lost generation
When the recession hit Ireland, many people’s plans and ambitions were put on ice or simply derailed.
One unexpected consequence was a whole generation of graduates who emerged from university to an economy that didn’t have jobs for them. Many found any kind of job that would suit and, due to commitments, are stuck in those jobs; others emigrated like generations before them.
“We are at a situation where, in the search for IT talent, the hardest people to find are those with four years’ experience in tech.
“We talk about the numbers of unemployed falling but what we are not seeing is the numbers of people who are underemployed. These are people who came out of college between 2008 and 2014 to a situation where there were no jobs and now they are trapped in jobs they are overqualified for.”
She said that the linchpin of the strategy for the mid-west is to reskill or upskill people for optimal employment.
“There are thousands of people out there with qualifications and aptitude who are in situations where they don’t have time to give up work to reskill, but this is one area where large multinationals or fast-growing start-ups that need people could benefit.”
Another area that could lead the mid-west to optimal employment is apprenticeships, and O’Connell pointed to a problem where people who may not have gone to college, or who have the potential but dropped out, could be trained for tech roles.
“Apprenticeships aren’t going to solve the IT skills pipeline problem, but they certainly can put people on the right track.”
And then there is the whole population of experienced executives and graduates who, for various reasons, are also being missed by tech companies.
O’Connell points to women in particular who have oodles of experience in business and industry and all the right qualifications but who simply left the career ladder for a few years to raise families.
“Many of these are still young but lack confidence because they feel they stepped out of the market for too long.”
A study by O’Connell of 168 such people found 75pc who had third-level qualifications – including three PhDs and 21 master’s graduates – who were ripe for working in tech if only they could be upskilled or had the confidence to return to their former careers.
“One woman had previously been a project manager at Stryker but ended up working in retail because it was the only place she could get 20 hours a week.”
Another avenue is working at home or near-shoring, whereby parents are happy to work a few hours per day while the kids are at school, or semi-retired people with skills and experience can work remotely.
“We estimate that there are at least 30,000 homemakers in the mid-west and 250,000 nationally who have qualifications and experience, could work remotely but who are underemployed and, with a little bit of training, can go and support optimal employment.
“It is about smart working, best practices and envisioning a strategy. That was how initiatives such as Limerick for IT and Limerick for Engineering were forged – they were born out of necessity.
“We need to use smart strategies, from upskilling underemployed graduates to apprenticeships to getting homemakers back into the workforce, to help solve the IT talent acquisition problem.
“It is about nurturing people back in to employment. Entrepreneurs aren’t just young people, for example. There are young women who just stepped out of their careers for a few years who should be encouraged back and who could flourish if we reach out to them in time. We educated these people as a country when they were young, but why should you give up on a career if you decided to start a family?”
In conclusion, O’Connell pointed out the obvious problem and a root cause of the tech skills shortage: “Everyone looks at third level as the only pipeline, but they are not looking at people who could be upskilled, or through a conversion course put back on the right track.
“It’s a huge missed opportunity.”