While the bursting of the dot om bubble and the subsequent downturn in tech spending of the past few years has been difficult for IT professionals, the long-term implications could be felt for many years yet to come. Media coverage of job losses at technology companies, wage freezes and IT professionals fleeing the sector have had an impact on teenagers, who are turning away from technology careers in huge numbers.
Statistics released by the central applications office provide hard evidence of the fall-off in interest in technology as a career amongst second-level students. In 2000, 8,981 students applying for degree courses chose an engineering or technology degree as their first preference, but this has fallen to 7,428 applications this year – a drop of over 17pc. For diploma and certificate courses the drop-off is even more marked – 15,055 chose engineering or technology as a first choice in 2000 but this has dropped to 9,262 in 2004 – a dramatic fall of 38pc. The total number of college applicants for the two years is almost identical, with 60,321 applicants in 2000 and 60,174 in 2004.
It is a very cyclical business. The stagnant job market of the past three years has already rebounded and Irish-based companies are now heavily recruiting IT professionals. A worry is that with fewer students taking IT courses there will be a shortfall in skilled talent to fill the jobs available.
The threatened flight of Irish tech jobs to low-cost locations in eastern Europe and the Far East has yet to materialise, but that could change if we don’t have the necessary graduates.
Statistics included in the Fourth Report of the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs, published last October, stated that while the annual supply of computer studies graduates is predicted to fall from 1,866 in 2006 to 1,535 in 2009, the demand for graduates will rise from 2,807 to 3,777 during the same period.
“We’ve got to target second-level students,” says Jim Friars, chief executive of the Irish Computer Society (ICS), the representative body for IT professionals. “We need to look at the curriculum, parents, peers and what kids think is a ‘cool’ occupation. The reality is that we need to get in at that level to gear them towards an interest in technology.”
Professor John Hughes, president of NUI Maynooth, also believes more needs to be done at second level. “There’s an impression that an IT course is no longer a route to a good job,” says Hughes. “There is a deficiency in schools career advice.”
The response from the ICS has been its Choose IT initiative (www.chooseit.ie). According to Friars, the aim is to get kids not to think of IT purely in terms of a programming or engineering position but to show them how IT skills are needed in every sector of the economy. Although championed by the ICS, Choose IT is also backed by the Higher Education Authority, universities and institutes of technology as well as by industry representatives.
The ICS is not the only body working to spur an interest in technology amongst teens. The thinking is that by exposing them to technology at an early age they are more likely to pursue IT as a career. Available evidence both in Ireland and internationally backs up that thesis.
NUI Maynooth is tackling the problem through its schools liaison programme and a series of summer camps for 15-16 year olds. “The aim is to show them how exciting science and technology is by getting them to work on projects,” says Hughes. “We want to stimulate their interest to ensure they keep science subjects on to Leaving Cert level.”
While there were signs last year that the drop in demand from students would lead colleges to scrap technology-focused courses, the Kildare university has responded by introducing innovative new courses with a technology element. In particular, its new BA in Finance and Venture Management course is designed for those wishing to work in the IT or biotech sectors and has proven extremely popular with students. “Students are looking for things that encompass a range of disciplines,” says Hughes. “The universities have to be more innovative in terms of the types of courses we offer.”
Other initiatives are targeting younger school children with the introduction of science to the curriculum at primary level. The Centre for Advancement of Learning of Maths, Science and Technology at Waterford Institute of Technology has already hosted over 65 events for schools.
The Government is levying telcos to fund its ambitious plans to have every primary and secondary school connected to broadband. In the tender for the project released last month, the Departments of Communications and Education are seeking to have broadband access of at least 512Kbps provided to 4,000 schools by September 2005.
By John Collins
Next time: post-graduate IT skills and training