Ireland’s talent meltdown

25 Sep 2008

We are sitting on a ticking tech talent time bomb. And the industries that will dominate the 21st century are beginning to notice.

It has been said to me before that the average schoolchild in nations such as China and India dreams of being a scientist. In the US, they dream of emulating the success of people such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

In Ireland, they would rather dream about getting on You’re a Star or becoming a plastic creation like Jordan.

At a time when the world is gripped by the implications of discovering dark matter and unlocking the mysteries of the universe through CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, Ireland’s investment in computers in schools is near the bottom of OECD league tables.

At a time when a Dublin firm – once known as Riverdeep and now known as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – is bringing 450 R&D jobs to its home city, some 10pc of Leaving Cert honours maths students have failed the exam and attendance on IT courses at third level has yet to return to pre-2002 levels.

All this is occurring in tandem with chip giants like Intel in Leixlip making chips for TVs, computers and digital cameras, and young Irish tech firms like Powervation making it possible to keep pushing the boundaries of Moore’s Law.

At the dawn of a new century set to be dominated by discoveries in technology and science, Ireland has never before been in such an advantageous position. Yet a collective blindness to the value of careers in these sectors and the need for infrastructure to create scientific minds at primary and secondary level is set to steal this advantage away.

Schools are still sitting on a crumbling IT infrastructure of donated Nineties PCs that would shame a third-world country, and little is being done to harness scientific and linguistic ability at the age that matters – nine or 10 years.

Buy any Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 game and you’ll notice a distinctive logo of a company called Havok, which grew out of a Trinity College Dublin research lab in the mid-Nineties. Havok was bought last year by Intel for US$110m and its future is established – only maybe not in Ireland.

The company employs some 35 people in Dublin, but due to our poor standard of graduate quality, Havok has had to import graduates and the Dublin office is composed of 17 nationalities. As well as this, to get the right talent, it has had to set up new development centres in India and Germany.

“With few exceptions, we are finding that Irish graduates do not meet the standard required. The computer science graduates coming out of universities are too few in quality and quantity. It’s unlikely that we would offer a job to more than one graduate in a year or two. It’s a bad situation,” says Havok’s chief executive, David O’Meara.

“The actual consequence right now could be that if Havok wasn’t a company with the ability to attract nationalities from overseas, it would have to leave Ireland,” he storms. “I don’t believe a company like Havok could be created in Ireland today. When the company was created 10 years ago, the talent was there. That talent isn’t coming out of Irish colleges now.

“I meet lots of interesting, ambitious young people with no shortage of ideas, they just don’t have the business or scientific acumen to cut it.”

O’Meara believes our difficulties can be traced to the teaching of maths at primary and secondary level. As a result of poor standards, he believes students lose their engagement and interest in challenging subjects such as maths and science, and end up becoming intimidated by the subjects.

“At heart, Irish students are one of two things: either they are intimidated by maths, physics and science, or they are attracted to being a lawyer or an accountant. They are in effect intimidated by the curriculum. All teachers seem to do is give out about how much money they need for this or that, but the standard of teaching of maths and science subjects in Ireland is poor at best.”

Another example of an up-and-coming, homegrown technology firm that requires quality graduates is Powervation, which grew out of a research project at  University of Limerick. The young company is backed by an A-list of venture capital firms, including Intel Capital, and has derived a new chip that allows manufacturers to achieve energy-efficiency gains of up to 30pc.

But, says chief executive Antoin Russell, graduate quality and quantity is a concern. “There are issues with the pipeline of quality coming through and that incentivised us to create an office in Cork where the electrical engineering talent we are looking for does exist.

“While the Government commitment to spending on fourth- level and postgrad research and attracting more researchers from overseas is encouraging, we would like to see more Irish people coming through. We would hope that with more success stories about Irish firms, maybe people will make the right decisions for their career path.

“The difficulty seems to arise prior to university. Graduates that should have been on-stream now were making their career decisions prior to the 2001 tech crash, and they and their parents were sensitive to the economic environment. Unfortunately, these things are in a cycle and by the time the students arrive at the end of their education, they are on a different path,” says Russell.

According to Pauline O’Loughlan of Ernst & Young, some 70pc of technology firms believe there is currently a real and very genuine skills shortage. “They are looking elsewhere to fill roles and Ireland is competing with a lot of locations – particularly the US and Australia – to get talent to come here.

“While we need to be good at attracting and retaining foreign nationals to fill these jobs, we need to be upskilling local nationals to compete for these jobs too. There has to be a re-education at secondary level to let pupils and career guidance teachers know there are major career opportunities in the technology sector. The percentage of employers that has experienced a shortage in the tech sector was higher than we anticipated,” O’Loughlan says.

In Dublin, search giant Google employs over 1,500 people – a large proportion of whom come from overseas. Country manager John Herlihy believes the problems of maths, science and languages go hand-in-hand.

“There are some fantastic opportunities here in Ireland, but future graduates have two different disadvantages, the first being that the average Irish person still only speaks one language – English – and in the technology world today, when a product is released, it is released with 40 or so languages simultaneously.

“The second disadvantage is that we are falling further and further behind in mathematics. First off, I think it is good news that Ireland is investing heavily in technology in third and fourth level. But, while this is positive, the downside is you don’t have a stream of good graduates coming through.

“Lecturers at third level are spending a lot of their time teaching remedial maths, as opposed to really helping students explore. It is not just a question of maths itself. It’s about creating a framework for logic and all software is within this framework.

“So it becomes a challenge when a large part of what the university is doing cannot be channelled into helping people think in new, creative ways but involves covering work that lecturers had anticipated would have been done in school,” Herlihy warns.

One of Ireland’s largest employers is technology giant HP, with over 4,000 people employed in Leixlip and Galway. Along with Microsoft, Intel and Cisco, the firm has played an integral role in the computerisation of primary and secondary schools in Northern Ireland, where over 90,000 computers have been distributed under the C2K programme.

HP’s country general manager, Martin Murphy believes changes to Ireland’s maths and science curriculum should work hand-in-hand with a long-overdue computerisation of schools in the Republic of Ireland. “It’s about getting maths and science into the DNA of the school-goer when it matters, at primary level and up through secondary. Technology is here and now, it’s not there for the future or when they’ve left school.

“This affects ordinary businesses, not just the ICT sector. Investment in education is investment in the future and, in technology terms, that investment hasn’t been made.”

While some €252m was earmarked for computerising Irish schools last year, the new Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe TD has yet to make any move on the matter. With an early Budget in October, and in light of the present economic climate, it is debatable whether the investment will be made any time soon.

But Murphy believes that not only is the €252m investment long overdue, it is not even enough.

“My view is the Government needs to fast-track investment in this area to make up the ground we have lost. There has been very little leadership from the department. We’re not looking for the Government to wave a magic wand, the ICT industry in Ireland is keen to form a partnership with Government on this issue.

“Our vision is every pupil and teacher in the country should have a laptop, an email address and access to e-learning content. We need to be doing whatever we can to achieve that goal, that is the bottom line.”

Referring to the broadband investment from industry of €17m, topped up by €2m from the Government, Murphy says: “Giving someone a broadband connection is like giving someone half the tools they need to get the job done. The other steps, the IT and content, have not been taken. These need to be completely integrated into the fabric of our schools.

“The magic ingredient of the Celtic tiger was a talented pool of people. The foundation of that was free education and it paid off. I think the same foundations need to be laid for a decade or two down the line. Build it and they will come – the companies will still come here if we build the education system up again.”

Murphy points to a report this year by the Education Minister’s own strategy group on investing effectively in ICT, which said that the €252m recommended under the National Development Plan “is insufficient of itself to provide the desirable level of ICT which will be required by schools over the next six years and beyond”.

So far, some €920m has been invested in developing Ireland’s scientific infrastructure, in particular at fourth level, by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). The very fact that fourth level will rely heavily on the performance of students at second level in the coming years is not lost on SFI’s director gen-eral, Professor Frank Gannon.

“We shouldn’t forget that maths and logic underpin every sector of our economy, not just the scientific and ICT fields,” he says, pointing to new OECD research showing that Ireland is 27th out of 29 countries when it comes to the amount of GDP per capita invested in each second-level student.

“Our domain doesn’t stretch to second level, but we are affected by it. A rework of the maths and science curriculum, as well as ICT investment, needs to be fast-tracked. Another issue is to encourage more women to pursue science and engineering subjects at second level.”

Incentivising second-level students to pursue honours maths with bonus points for CAO applications is another area that Gannon believes deserves a fresh look. “The idea is that maths is harder to study. Well, it is also beneficial to you in all walks of life, and a love of maths rather than a fear of it needs to be fostered. We need to consider how we incentivise honours maths uptake but generally ensure everyone is better educated.”

The lack of a reasonable 21st-century computer infrastructure in Irish schools is a concern to Gannon. “If there was a study into the correlation between 10 year olds being equipped with computers at school and their performance thereafter, it would be hugely beneficial. In these challenging economic times, it is harder to get money than ever, so it’s a serious political challenge.”

While SFI has been encouraging secondary school science teachers through its STARS awards programme, the Discover Science & Engineering (DSE) programme also has its eye on increasing secondary students’ aptitudes for both science and maths.

“The challenge is to move away from rote learning in maths and science to more experiential learning – basically learning by doing,” says DSE director, Peter Brabazon. He says there was a dearth of field-trip experiences to bring science to life for Irish students, but this has been helped by the creation of 15 exploration stations and 25 discovery centres, as well as the National Science Gallery.

“We are weak in the area of computing. However, while things are improving, they are improving at too slow a rate. We are emphasising that students should make use of their public libraries for internet access and this year we decided to deliver our programme for Science Week entirely online. We’re not sure when the €252m project will be rolled out, but the reality is 450,000 students would really benefit if knowledge was delivered by electronic channels.”

Brabazon points out that in 2007 some 96.5pc of students studied maths, but only 16.5pc did so at a higher level. Ireland, he says, excels at producing engineers and scientists, but also technical professions like actuaries, and to keep this up maths needs to be more engaging.

“It’s also about getting teachers to teach, not by rote, but by application and practical hands-on classes that keep students engaged in subjects that will be fun but also vital for their future careers,” Brabazon adds, pointing to the fact that the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is working with 24 pilot schools on a new curriculum for maths.

“They will fine-tune it going forward for all schools across the country. Both teachers and pupils should view this as a real opportunity.

“Learning is about doing, whether downloading the right content, figuring out a problem or out in the field exploring,” Brabazon concludes.

By John Kennedy

(Additional reporting by Marie Boran)

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years