Positions vacant - lacking talent

Fri, Jan 27, 2012, 00:00

SKILLS SHORTAGE:WITH A LACK of relevant talent forcing indigenous companies and Irish-based multinationals to look to Eastern Europe to fill engineering vacancies, no stakeholders can escape blame for letting such a situation develop.

Be it as a result – or in spite – of successive governments’ policies, the theory of jobs growth led by a “smart economy” appears to have had some merit.

Despite high unemployment and emigration figures there are hundreds – if not thousands – of vacancies in Irish-based technology companies at any given moment. The problem is that there is not the Irish-based talent to fill them.

According to John Power, director general of Engineers Ireland, this is only one of the many legacies left behind by the Celtic Tiger years. “We went through an era where we all lived in a bubble . . . unfortunately students and a lot of other people felt the path to making big money was in the legal side, accounting, as service professionals,” he says. “Students need to understand that paradigm has changed entirely.”

According to Power, the boom encouraged talent away from more difficult, maths-focused courses such as engineering and toward easier subjects that still promised instant employment and big financial rewards.

It is a view shared by many in the industry.

“I suppose we got used to taking the soft options,” says Dr John Hayes, a lecturer in electrical and electronic engineering in UCC. “It was too easy to avoid going down the hard route of the sciences.”

Those who did take the engineering route also tended to opt for the civil side as a result of the construction boom, he said. Students – and indeed parents, teachers and schools – simply failed to see where sustainable job growth would be in the years ahead.

This shift, in effect, created a negative spiral for universities.

As talented students sought degrees in other areas CAO points in engineering began to drop, leading courses to take on weaker students.

Starting from lower baselines, some courses were forced to change tack to help students progress. The end result was a student with less ability who had been taught in less-than-ideal circumstances.

“If you get people who are barely qualified to do the material it does mean you spend an awful lot more time with remedial issues,” says Dr Adam Winstanley, head of the computer science department at NUI Maynooth.

“You have people barely getting through and struggling and then you have more resources used getting people through exams.” This, says Dr Winstanley, is not the way a subject should be taught to students who should ideally have the opportunity to “read around” the material more.

Ultimately this led to a decline in the quantity, and in many causes quality, of engineering graduates.

“The situation is that the good [students] coming out are very good, it’s just that there are not enough of them,” says John Blake, head of the Microelectronic Industry Design Association (Midas).

The finger is consistently pointed at second level – and even primary – education at a way to address this issue.

Most in industry and academia argue that students need to be coming to college with a stronger foundation, which will make it easier for them to be brought forward to graduation.

Project Maths has generally been greeted as a positive step in this regard, although many are still withholding judgment on its benefits. However, many call for radical reform of education, suggesting the addition of new subjects such as computer science to make it more relevant to future job demand.

However, not all of the blame is put squarely on the secondary system – some also suggest a need for reform at third level.

When asked about academia’s interaction with industry to improve graduate performance, one senior industry figure says: “They’re slow . . . I wouldn’t say they’re hugely cooperative.”

He adds that some universities now preferred to focus on research as opposed to undergraduate training as they can get more funding.

“The comments seem to be that we’ve a problem with the undergraduate side so we’ll just let it go but we’ll keep doing research,” he says.

As some European research grants are based around the free mobility of researchers in the EU, there can also be a situation where researchers are brought to Ireland rather than home-grown, he says.

This importing of talent is not unique to academia, however.

According to the chief executive of Cork-based Powervation, his firm’s last three hires came from eastern Europe because there was not the suitable talent available in Ireland.

“In some cases the material, the way [universities] teach and the staff themselves haven’t changed in 20 years,” says Mike McAuliffe. “Students need to be exposed to job opportunities and they need to be exposed to enthusiasm.”

However, McAuliffe says a lack of talent from third level aside, there are also issues within the industry that make it harder to find talent.

He says small companies such as his one can not invest the time and money it takes to bring a graduate up to speed in a working company, something only larger players really have the resources to do.

Companies such as his need more experienced talent, he says – but they are generally snapped up by multinationals with deeper pockets.

Even with this advantage, however, Google is one company that seems to be struggling to bag local talent.

Eric Schmidt, executive chairman at Google, is reported to have complained about this very issue at a meeting with the Cabinet last year, encouraging them to ease visa restrictions so the search giant could bring more staff in.

John Power accepts that the industry has its problems and needs to work to make the situation better, not least by encouraging more talent into engineering degrees in the first place.

“I would really love if companies opened their doors to students and indeed adults for people to go in and actually see what happens,” he says. “Unfortunately with engineering a lot is taken for granted and it would create an awareness of what they’re doing in these places.”

John Blake agrees: “I don’t think [the industry] was putting enough press out there, I don’t think we were telling the story as effectively as we could have.”

As engineering has maths and problem solving at its core there was also huge competition between the various engineering disciplines too, he said.

John Hayes went one further and said that all types of industries are potential competitors for a good engineering graduate.

“A significant amount of our electronic engineer graduates went into oil and gas last year, which is not necessarily an intuitive industry for that kind of expertise,” he said.

There are the beginnings of positive signs, however. After years of decline, the CAO points requirements for most engineering courses around the country are recovering as students seek out areas where job prospects are strong.

UCC also added an energy engineering course to its prospectus in 2007, showing that demand is there if the focus is right.

According to Dr Winstanley, the pace of change in technology means the focus must be on creating smart, adaptable workers.

“Things are moving so quickly we don’t really have a clue what the industry will look like in 20-30 years,” he says. “Industry wants educated people, they’re not just interested in us training their new recruits.”

Links between industry and universities are also improving, as bodies such as Midas seek to create stronger ties that will ultimately benefit its members.

“We’re sitting down with the universities, trying to plan out to see how we can do a better job,” he says.

“We’re willing to get involved in the courses and advise them, take students on and offer work experience.”

However, it may be a few years before the industry see the benefits of these shifts, co-operations and initiatives. For the moment, there is no clear way of ensuring that thousands of jobs flowing onto the market are not lost to the Irish for good.