Preparing students for a career in IT

1 Feb 2012

We spoke to Prof Alan Smeaton and Dr Cathal Gurrin from Dublin City University (DCU) about the digital skills gap and how to better prepare young people who wish to take up a career in IT.

The IT industry in Ireland continues to grow and create jobs, in spite of the country’s economic difficulties and high levels of unemployment. It’s estimated that the indigenous software sector’s exports are worth more than €1bn per year and all of the top 10 multinational tech companies have operations in Ireland.

“The technology sector in Ireland is thriving. Since the beginning of the year, over 300 jobs have been announced,” said Regina Moran, ICT Ireland chair and CEO of Fujitsu Ireland in the release of the ICT Action Plan report earlier this week.

“This is on foot of 4,000 jobs announced in the sector in 2011,” she said.

However, a major challenge for the industry is finding the talent to support these jobs. According to the ICT Action Plan report, 55pc of high-level ICT skills are being met through inward migration.

It identified that more needed to be done boost ICT skills in the domestic market. By implementing a number of education initiatives, it plans to double its annual output from honours degree ICT undergraduate programmes to 2,000 graduates by 2018, up from 1,000 graduates in 2011.

Identifying skills gaps in IT industry

Where exactly are the gaps within the IT industry? Both Smeaton and Gurrin believe there is great demand for people right across the sector.

“It’s quite widespread and there’s a spectrum of IT jobs which vary from hardcore technical skills – such as hardware engineering, programming and development – right up to the softer skills, such as search engine optimisation and digital marketing,” says Smeaton.

“And interaction with other people in the organisation, such as personal communications skills, as well. It goes from technical to personal, as well,” adds Gurrin.

Smeaton believes there isn’t a single reason for this skills gap. He points out that one reason was due to the dot-com bust at the beginning of the millennium. Indeed, the ICT Action Plan notes there was a significant decline in graduate numbers in computing and engineering from a peak in 2002.

Educating students in IT

Smeaton and Gurrin also point out how students who commence a computer science degree in university often don’t know what they’re letting themselves in for.

“The reason that there aren’t enough graduates being produced is that when people come to university to learn programming, they haven’t any experience or exposure to what that’s about,” says Smeaton.

“They’re not really sure what they’re coming to university to learn. They’re doing computer science without knowing what it is, which is an issue that stems from the high school system here,” says Gurrin.

“Children in schools normally don’t get exposed to what computer programming is about,” adds Smeaton.

“They get things like ECDL and some schools will do computer programming, but mostly when they arrive in the university sector, they don’t know what computer programming is. Some people take to it but some people don’t and they realise that they’ve made a mistake,” he says.

DCU has aimed to address this by inviting between 400 and 600 transition-year students to the university for a week during January to learn computer programming and web development. It hopes to show students what university life is like and what it’s like to work with computer programming so they don’t decide to start a computer science degree without knowing what’s involved.

Problem solving

Of course, due to the changeable nature of technology, teaching digital skills in primary and secondary level may be a challenge, so Smeaton believes that teaching problem=solving skills may be more important.

“One of the ways that I think children can discover (if they want to work in IT) is knowing if they’re good at problem solving,” says Smeaton.

“It’s problem-solving skills and abilities rather than digital skills, because digital technologies will constantly evolve. Trying to build digital skill awareness into a secondary school curriculum is going to be very challenging because it’s very much a moving target.

“But underpinning that is problem solving and if you’re good at problem solving, then it most naturally follows that you’re good at mathematics and therefore likely to be good at programming and software development.

“So I think if they discover that about themselves at an earlier stage, they can make a more informed career choice and they’re less likely to contribute to drop-out rates,” he says. is hosting Skills February, a month dedicated to news, reports, interviews and videos covering a range of topics on the digital skills debate.

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