Throughout the world, those economies aspiring to build winning high-tech sectors are experiencing the skills crunch. Universities and colleges just cannot turn out the engineers and programmers at a fast enough rate to meet the needs of a rapidly growing industry.
Last week, a grouping of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, along with New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, launched the ‘March for Innovation’ campaign for immigration reform, that will see a ‘virtual march’ in Washington in April. Basically, this will involve a concerted social media and email campaign by the tech industry, to convince the country’s congressmen and senators to pass a bill that facilitates the sourcing of high-tech talent from abroad.
On a trip to India this month, British Prime Minister David Cameron told local media there was no limit to the number of students who can work in the UK once they have completed their studies, and he announced the move from a three-day to a one-day visa service for students and business travellers to the UK.
In Europe, there is recognition of the challenge ahead, too. The EU Foresight study (Anticipating the Development of the Supply and Demand of e-Skills in Europe in 2010-2015) anticipates that the EU labour market could face an excess demand of 384,000 ICT practitioners by 2015.
Here in Ireland, tech entrepreneur, investor and RTÉ Dragons’ Den judge Sean O’Sullivan launched a movement called Open Ireland in March of last year to call on Government to make thousands of ‘IT visas’ available to high-skilled tech workers from abroad. Many in the industry have been vocal about the risks to Ireland’s FDI and indigenous tech sector if the system did not change. At present, it is estimated there are as many as 5,000 unfilled vacancies in Ireland’s ICT sector.
In last week’s Action Plan for Jobs 2013 announcement, the Irish Government responded in kind, announcing plans to make it easier to bring in qualified staff from abroad, particularly from outside the European Economic Area (EEA).
A section in the plan entitled ‘Attracting necessary skills from abroad’ recognises that in tandem with reskilling and development of third-level courses, ‘it will be necessary to attract in skills from abroad’.
In the plan, the Irish Government commits to shaking up the work permit processing system, simplifying the permit process for non-EEA skilled professionals, and ensuring that at least 700 additional permits will be provided to the ICT sector in 2013.
The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation also committed to creating a new unified employment permits application e-form that will streamline the application process. Crucially, it commits to reducing processing times by 33pc.
One proposal involves the development of a ‘trusted partner’ registration, which will provide for the pre-registration of large prospective employers. This will reduce the need for provision of duplicates of employers’ credentials with each permit application and reduce the administrative burden.
The news has been broadly, if cautiously, welcomed by those in the industry.
‘Government is listening’
Barry Rhodes is chief executive of INEX, the industry association that provides IP peering facilities to members, among them many of Ireland’s big FDI players, such as Google, Amazon and Yahoo! He has long been voicing his concern around skills on behalf of the industry.
“A lot of those companies have unfilled vacancies which are very unlikely to be filled from the pool of talent that we’re creating here in our own universities,” he said. “So I welcome the move. It shows that the Government is listening, and that’s encouraging.
“I am just a bit surprised that the number is as low as 700 initially, but that is just for this year, so it will probably take them the rest of this year to process those places, and hopefully this will be an ongoing initiative.”
Rhodes particularly welcomed the news of the reduction in bureaucracy, as he believes this has been the single biggest deterrent for ICT employers.
“If one of the large FDI companies wanted five staff to come in, they had to do the paperwork five times. Now, if you’re PayPal, you will fill in the documentation once and, once you’ve been approved, you can bring in who you need. That’s going to make life a lot easier.”
“What I hope is that the 700 fills up very quickly and Government sees the benefit and says, ‘OK, let’s make it 5,000 or 10,000 extra’,” he said.
O’Sullivan himself welcomed the move, and said he understood that the 700 permits figure was just an initial 50pc increase for 2013. He said he was confident that, as Government saw the benefits accrue, that figure would rise significantly.
“I’m extremely encouraged,” he said. “They have committed to scrapping about half of the current procedures and regulations, which will have an immediate impact. I’m heartened that the sense of urgency felt by the industry is being echoed at least in part by the Government.”
Companies struggle to fill jobs
According to Jane Lorigan, CEO Europe, Saongroup.com and IrishJobs.ie, the job site’s research from the end of 2012 showed that 60pc of companies searching for skilled workers in ICT were having ‘some’ or ‘a lot’ of difficulty filling roles.
Lorigan’s concern is that FDI companies could consider off-shoring projects to operations in other parts of the world, if they do not have confidence in filling project-critical roles in Ireland.
“We have a skills shortage in IT, particularly at the top end, the kind of people who might run a large-scale project around, and which would create further roles around them. If the skills needed are residing outside the EU, we just have to make it very easy to bring them in.”
She believes that this is a short-term problem and therefore welcomes the announcement. “In three or four years time’, those senior IT people will be coming up through the ranks here, and will have been adequately trained. For now, we need to import these skills.”
She, too, questions that 700 is adequate. “I think we have a bigger immediate need than that. And while I welcome the reduction in processing times by 33pc, I think most companies would like to see that wait time reduced by 50 or 75pc. People with these high-level skills are not going to wait around. They’ll be snapped up by other companies in other countries.”
A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 3 March