Leading academic warns of potential skills shortage

27 Mar 2006

A leading academic acting as a liaison between Lucent Technologies Bell Labs’ €69m investment in Irish research and development (R&D) activities and the university sector here has expressed concern that not enough students are opting for science and technology courses at third level, leading to a potential shortage of much needed PhD graduates.

Dr William Lyons (pictured) is employed by Lucent Technologies Bell Labs Ireland and shares a postdoctoral position with Bell Labs and the Centre for Telecommunications Value Chain Driven Research (CTVR). Prior to commencing an Irish Government postdoctoral fellowship in science, engineering and technology, Lyons lectured in the Department of Electronic and Computer Engineering at the University of Limerick.

Speaking with siliconrepublic.com, Dr Lyons expressed disappointment at recent CAO figures that showed a 5pc decline in Leaving Cert students opting for engineering and technology courses this year. He said that strident efforts should be made to reverse this trend.

“While there has been a strengthening in the jobs market for science and technology jobs, demand for courses in this area isn’t as strong as it should be. These courses are the foundation of research for the knowledge economy and it takes four years to get a basic degree so I would be concerned about the supply chain for gradates in four to seven years. If we want to develop our potential as a R&D location we need a strong supply of PhD graduates.

Exactly a year ago Lucent Technologies Bell Labs opened a €43m research facility in Blanchardstown that aims to harness Irish science and engineering talent while undertaking leading-edge telecommunications research. Bell Labs Ireland plans to employ 40 researchers focussing on a range of supply chain management and product development technologies. Researchers there will work in partnership with nine leading Irish universities and technical institutes in achieving their goals.

The lab is part of a €69m investment package announced by the Government two years ago that has also seen the creation of a cross-university telecommunications research facility, the CTVR based at Trinity College Dublin (TCD). The Bell Labs facility accounts for more than €43m of the total investment and is being jointly funded by Bell Labs and IDA Ireland, while the CTVR is being funded by Science Foundation Ireland as part of its ambitious Centre for Science Engineering and Technology programme.

Lyons continues: “This drop-off in numbers opting for science and technology courses would be a real concern because the students enrolling now are the foundation for taking Ireland to the next level. The Irish government has identified the supply of PhD graduates as vital. There is an urgency to step up efforts to ensure this supply.

“Students that have persevered with science, technology and engineering courses will have their choice in jobs. But if there’s an ongoing fall-off in numbers opting for these courses companies will find it impossible to find the raw material for the knowledge economy that we talk of,” Dr Lyons said.

By John Kennedy