Weird science as students ignore buoyant tech sector

27 Jul 2006

Rather like house prices spiralling ever upwards when interest rates are rising, the dearth of students taking science, engineering and computing courses seems to defy logic.

The economy remains strong, the technology sector has strongly rebounded from the dotcom crash and Ireland’s future self-evidently will be as a high-tech nation. But despite all this, the great majority of school leavers don’t see themselves making a career in science and technology.

For Professor Michael Ryan, it is a most perplexing issue. The head of Dublin City University’s (DCU) School of Computing has seen the number of students on his computing course fall back from its peak in 2001 to the sort of levels that were seen a decade ago when the IT industry was nascent.

“The numbers putting a computing degree as their first choice on the CAO have dropped by 80pc since their peak. DCU has dropped by less than elsewhere — we still have by far the largest number of applicants — but we have dropped from an intake of about 300 to about 150. I know of at least one course elsewhere with fewer than 10 in its first year.

“By 2010 I’m certain the supply of graduates will be less than half the number in 2005. It may be less than a third if things don’t improve. In 2005 we turned out 242 computing graduates in DCU; for the next few years we’ll be turning out below 100.”

Part of the reason for the low numbers, Ryan believes, is that students are still wary of technology as a career, perhaps fearing a repeat of the lay-offs of 2000-2003 or that there are few jobs available. In fact, there are plenty of jobs in computing, says Ryan, and employment opportunities are set to rise.

To prove it, he and a colleague, Laura Grehan, did a survey last year of the number of computing jobs available on five major Irish recruitment websites. They found that roughly 9,500 jobs were advertised as vacant. When they did a follow-up study recently, they found substantial growth in jobs, from 9,500 in May 2005 to well over 13,000 in May 2006 — a 42pc jump.

The healthy jobs state is borne out by the proportion of Ryan’s graduates who have been finding jobs in the IT area. In DCU, of 145 BSc in Computer Applications graduates in 2003, just two (1.3pc) were seeking employment in April 2004. Of 184 graduates in 2004, just six (3.2pc) were looking for work in April 2005. Moreover, the vast majority of jobs graduates had found were based in Ireland.

Further evidence of the healthy jobs market lies in the fact that in DCU in 2005 there was surplus demand from companies who wished to take Computer Applications third-year students on the university’s six-month ‘Intra’ work placement programme. These students were paid an average of €364 per week by their employers but even so not enough students were available to fill all the positions on offer.

The ramifications of such trends were spelt out in the Fourth Report of the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs back in October 2003. This report predicted that if current numbers of students entering computing degrees were maintained, there would be a shortfall of over 1,900 computing graduates in Irish industry by the time those commencing degrees in autumn 2005 graduated. But Ryan points out that his survey of current job vacancies indicates that these figures might require upward revision.

The Irish Computer Society also sees a skills shortfall as inevitable. It said: “Now we have the prospect in the coming years of not just core [IT] companies such as IBM, Microsoft and Oracle but also our key industries such as financial services looking at a supply of computer graduates that will fall far short of their requirements. So, if nothing is done to alter perceptions, Irish industry faces a return to recruiting overseas to fill its needs for computer professionals.”

The skills shortages in the computing area are also being seen in the science and engineering fields. Last October, Engineers Ireland and the Irish Academy of Engineering published a major report, entitled Engineering a Knowledge Island 2020, which highlights the potential for the island of Ireland to become one of the top five richest economies in the world within the next 15 years. It concluded the island would need to produce 14,000 engineers a year to meet this objective, yet the current annual output is only 5,100.

Likewise, ICT Ireland, the lobby group for high-tech companies within IBEC, has consistently warned of impending skills shortages in the ICT industry as a result of a drop-off in the output of technology graduates. In its pre-Budget submission last year, the group noted that “the decreasing numbers of students in ICT-related courses and the subsequent low numbers of researchers and PhDs, as well as a general erosion of our competitive position, are of grave concern to the industry.”

This trend that has not gone unnoticed by the Government, whose national Discover Science and Engineering programme is aimed at transforming attitudes to these disciplines among schoolchildren.

A key element of the programme is Steps to Engineering, which was established in 2000 to encourage both primary and post-primary students to explore the world of science and engineering.

“”We’re trying to be more proactive in local radio and press. Our target is to reach 48,000 schoolchildren in 2006 and so far this year we’ve reached 27,500 students through our various programmes,” says Una Parsons, Steps to Engineering industry director.
Steps to Engineering is currently devising a new initiative aimed at tackling skills shortages in the ICT area. The campaign, which is being developed in conjunction with ICT Ireland, the Irish Computer Society, the Higher Education Authority and Discover Science and Engineering, is to be rolled out in the autumn.

Parsons is hopeful that such initiatives will help break down the negative attitudes schoolchildren have towards technology careers. “People are still remembering the dotcom bubble; perceptions are hard to change. But there have been 3,000 jobs announcements in ICT sector since January and hopefully the positive message will get through eventually.”

By Brian Skelly