Meeting the skills challenge as the international battle for talent heats up
Sally Khallash, founding director of the Centre for Global Talent Strategy and expert on talent mobility

Meeting the skills challenge as the international battle for talent heats up

5 Feb 2013

The skills gap in high-growth sectors like ICT and engineering is leading to a global scramble for the best talent, nowhere more so than in Ireland. It’s a challenge facing all countries and organisations, according to talent mobility expert Sally Khallash, and one that is going to take some innovative thinking from governments and organisations alike.

It’s well documented that both Ireland’s high-tech multinationals and its indigenous software companies are facing this skills deficit. In October of last year, the parliamentary Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation published a review of the information communication technology (ICT) skills demand in Ireland. It revealed that 75pc of ICT companies were looking for workers, and there were some 4,500 vacancies unfilled in the key sectors, notwithstanding a national level of unemployment of 14.6pc. There is much talk about finding the talent beyond Ireland’s own borders but consider this – the same report found that in Germany there were some 400,000 vacancies for ICT and science jobs in that country.

In the US, the skills gap is creating similar levels of concern. A recent study from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University in Washington estimated that the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) could have a 230,000 shortfall of advanced degrees in the US by 2018.

Talent mobility

None of this is any surprise to Sally Khallash, the founding director of the UK-based Centre for Global Talent Strategy and a leading expert on talent mobility, who makes her first trip to Dublin this week to serve as keynote speaker at the Future Jobs Forum in the Convention Centre Dublin. A recognised EU expert, Khallash has worked with multinational companies, from Maersk and Siemens to ManpowerGroup and PwC, and is a regular speaker and analyst for governments and organisations, from the European Commission, to the Danish Immigration Service and the International Organisation of Migration.

Khallash further cautions that the competition extends well beyond Europe and the US, and that our governments need a reality check. “In Europe and the US, we tend to believe that the competition for talent is really only in the mature markets, whereas in actual fact the skilled workforce shortages in emerging markets are becoming even more severe.

“Emerging markets are not only dependent on using their own talent, they are actually starting to recruit more and more from abroad,” says Khallash. “I think it’s vital to realise that the competition is getting much broader and much more complex. This is something we need to be considering at national policy level in the developed countries if we are going to be able to respond.”

Organisations, too, will need to be a bit more imaginative, says Khallash, when tackling this issue. “We may need to abandon our idea of ‘filling a job’, because with the technology we have today, there are so many different options to ‘fill’ jobs using modern technology, that are not necessarily dependent on moving.

“It could be that the roles don’t require a physical presence, and wouldn’t require the candidate to move at all. That’s a concept that could be integrated into the whole culture of an organisation. If you do this, suddenly the talent market opens up in an entirely different way than we’re used to today.

“That idea of talent mobility not being necessarily about a physical move is something we should be exploring more in European countries in order to be able to compete for the talent we will need.”

Government target

In Ireland, the Minister for Education and Skills has already put in place a target of doubling the annual output from honours degree ICT undergraduate programmes to 2,000 graduates by 2018.

Prof Brian MacCraith is president at Dublin City University, where many new courses have been created to try to meet the talent deficit, but he, too, recognises that we just will not be able to churn out the graduates at a fast enough rate.

“The skills challenges are being well articulated by the employers, and there’s clearly an ICT skills gap,” he says. “I believe the figures at the moment say that about 55pc of our needs in that space are being answered by graduates from Ireland, so that’s clearly an unsatisfactory situation.”

MacCraith sees good progress being made, though. “I think the bubble bursting caused people to move away from this sector as a job opportunity,” he says. “That damaged the numbers for years, but that problem is now gone. And for the first time this year, we are seeing a significant rise again in the numbers of applications from students in the CAO for computing, for engineering for the broader STEM areas. But there’s a long way to go in terms of us meeting the needs and addressing the significant gap that is there.”

It is a sentiment echoed by Prof Orla Feely, the new chair of the Irish Research Council (IRC). She sees the issue not just at IRC level, but in her other role as professor of electronic engineering at UCD. “We are seeing companies come to us and say ‘we simply cannot get enough good people. The people you are providing us are wonderful, if only we could have three, four times as many of them’. So this is obviously a concern at a national level.”

Feely is also seeing some cause for optimism. “We are starting to see some progress in this,” she says. “Certainly at undergraduate level we are seeing students in electronic engineering come to us in numbers that we had not seen in many, many years.”

“And we are also seeing an increase in applications from international students, both at post-graduate and undergraduate level,” says Feely. “The usefulness of the education system to import talent into an innovating economy cannot be underestimated. It is a character of all successful centres of innovation in the world.”

And this is the crux of the matter. Notwithstanding impressive strides at university and conversion course level, the experts agree that we cannot hope to turn out highly skilled candidates in the sheer numbers required.

Career Zoo for graduates and professionals

Career Zoo, the careers exhibition for professionals and graduates, expects thousands of potential candidates on Saturday to file through the Convention Centre Dublin, vying for some 3,500 jobs, many in that ICT area, with employers like Amazon, AOL, eBay, PayPal, Workday and Qualcast all hunting for recruits. According to organiser Brian O’Hoisin, these companies are all looking for the brightest and best with tech skills, and they are happy to look outside Ireland if needs be.

He, too, sees a trend for upskilling and training to meet the gap. “We’re seeing a lot of the companies looking at in-house training, as well. If Workday hire you, for example, they’ll bring you to San Francisco for three months and train you in Scala (a new programming language),” he says. “I think you’re going to see more and more companies bringing that upskilling element into their companies – to their teams. I think you’ll see organisations taking some responsibility for the skills gap that’s out there, as well, and they can make a big difference in that space.”

Ultimately, there is growing consensus that we will need to look beyond our borders to fill any short-term gap. It was a fact recognised by our Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton when responding to the Joint Committee review in November. “Work is also proceeding in my department with regard to the preparation of new employment permits legislation which will provide for more flexibility and targeted instruments in support of the economy’s evolving skills needs,” he told the committee.

Khallash is a strong advocate of greater openness toward immigrants as a key part of any skills solution. “Immigrants are entrepreneurs in so many ways – just the initiative of getting up and leaving their own countries in order to seek new opportunities is entrepreneurial in itself.

“At a national policy level, we should all be looking at how we can create systems that support that entrepreneurial spirit. A country that is closed to new people and new ideas is a country that is in danger of stagnating and dying.”

A version of this interview first appeared in The Sunday Times on 3 February

Sally Khallash is a keynote speaker at the Future Jobs Forum, where international keynotes and local leaders will discuss Ireland’s challenges and opportunities in the global battle for talent, on 8 February at The Convention Centre Dublin

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