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Building a digitally competent workforce

Education and industry have set up a number of initiatives to prepare younger students for careers in science and technology

It is predicted there will be 825,000 ICT job vacancies across Europe by 2020.

It is predicted there will be 825,000 ICT job vacancies across Europe by 2020.


With artificial intelligence, the internet of things and data analytics soon to play a much more dominant role in all of our lives, it can be assumed that many of the jobs of the future will lie in these areas.

In fact, the Irish Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition says it is predicted there will be 825,000 ICT job vacancies across Europe by 2020.

So what is Ireland doing to prepare for this, in terms of a digitally competent workforce? And what can be done to ensure that more students choose STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) college courses?

Ruth Freeman, director of strategy and communications at Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), says there’s actually quite a lot being done in terms of encouraging digital skills, much of it rolled out by the Department of Education.

The Irish Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition was launched in April – a multi-stakeholder partnership including Government and businesses – to look at the shortage of digital skills. One of the key areas the group will focus on is teacher education.

“We now have 100MB broadband in every secondary school; that opens up for teachers the opportunity to use technology across lots of different subjects and learning experiences and I think we need to equip teachers with how they can make the best use of that,” Freeman says.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton recently established and chairs the National Skills Council, the most senior group in the country overseeing this area.

An Education Review Group was also set up last year to look at the teaching and learning of STEM in primary and secondary schools, which focused on teachers and what they need to be empowered. It also looked at the implementation of computer science as a Leaving Cert subject, which was to be rolled out in 2019 but Bruton has brought that forward to 2018, as part of his action plan for education.

Smart Futures

SFI runs a programme called Smart Futures, where a number of industry role models volunteer their time, going to schools and talking about a career in STEM.

It also has the Discover Programme, which supports many public engagement around STEM, including Science Week and iWish (Inspiring Women in STEM), a newer initiative geared at transition-year girls.

Anna Scally, head of technology and media at KPMG, says: “Programmes such as iWish shine a spotlight on female role models in STEM to female students at secondary level. The initiative clearly demonstrates that, when exposed to real-life achievement in technology and related areas, female students will challenge the notion that technology careers are not for them’.”

Industry is also playing its part to encourage a pipeline of talent for the economy of the future.

Software company Salesforce has been located in Dublin since 2000 and Dr David Dempsey, Ireland managing director and senior vice-president, says workers’ skills have been the lifeblood of the business.

“From the Government strategies, to business initiatives, to the countless community programmes across the country, Ireland is tackling the challenge of building IT skills. We are very supportive of all these efforts. We welcome the Government’s commitment to building our STEM skills. However, it’s important that the tech industry itself plays a role in developing digital talent as well. We are active supporters of programmes like CoderDojo, Stemettes and Citywise. As a business, we have introduced our own global programme, Trailhead, that is a free online learning platform so that anybody can learn the business skills needed to build apps on the Salesforce platform and beyond,” he says.

Pharmaceutical company MSD Ireland is also playing its part in promoting STEM through its partnership with Junior Achievement Ireland.

Ger Brennan, managing director of MSD Human Health in Ireland says: “This highly successful STEM Skills programme provides students with practical information and experience and informs them on the range of exciting opportunities a career in STEM offers.

“Since 2012, 34 primary and secondary schools in Dublin, Cork, Carlow and Tipperary have participated in this joint initiative, which is delivered by MSD volunteers from across our sites and uses teaching materials developed by Junior Achievement Ireland. The great thing about this programme is that students are able to acquire advice and practical, hands-on experience that provides them with the know-how to fulfil their potential and succeed in a STEM-focused workplace.

“The bespoke modules, delivered by volunteers from MSD, enable students to broaden their understanding of the skills necessary to succeed in a STEM-focused workplace, as well as putting these skills into action through hands-on STEM classroom projects.”

In terms of encouraging further student participation in STEM subjects, SFI’s Ruth Freeman says there needs to be a change in what could be deemed “negative stereotypes” when it comes to ICT.

“The role modelling thing is very important. There are very low levels of women working in these fields – we need to talk about how these jobs are excellent and provide people with great work/life balance. They can enable things like remote working, flexible hours and are often very well paid – these are the types of things we need to talk about.”

The “geeks and nerds” stereotype can turn people off, she adds.

“Going down this route can open up opportunities. Medicine has historically been the prestige career but if you look at the lifestyle most doctors have, it’s incredibly taxing. We don’t talk enough about those day-to-day realities.”

While encouraging students to consider STEM courses at third level, it’s also important to foster an interest in these subjects at primary and secondary level.

Anna Scally of KPMG says CoderDojo has achieved just that. “We’ve seen with CoderDojo how the brilliant idea of James Whelton to set up a computer club in his school led to a worldwide movement of volunteers focused on teaching web programming and development to a whole new generation of young people. We need more innovation like this, built around the philosophy of peer learning.”

CoderDojo now has aspirations to have a club in every town in Ireland, something Freeman says is “brilliant”.

“I think once computer science as a Leaving Cert subject happens next year that will make a big impact. It will enable students to get a much more comprehensive range of skills before they even get to college. Both are important,” she adds.

Computer science

Dr David Dempsey of Salesforce agrees the introduction of coding and computer science for second-level students is a must. But while teaching in the classroom is important, so too is the part industry plays.

He says Salesforce is committed to giving back to its communities.

“Our 1-1-1 model of integrated philanthropy contributes 1 per cent of Salesforce’s time, technology and resources back into the local community. Last year alone, our employees in Ireland donated more than 25,000 hours in volunteer time.

“We have partnered with local schools, St Peter’s in Bray and Dominic’s College in Ballyfermot, and supported great programmes like Stemettes and Citywise.

“The first Salesforce Dojo was set up in February 2014 for the kids of our own employees, but we knew we could do more and we did. Today, across Europe, Salesforce-supported Dojos will reach 420 kids per session and do so with a 50/50 ratio of boys and girls in each session,” he says.

MSD’s Ger Brennan says it’s also key to promote diversity and to support women’s participation and leadership in STEM.

“We created the Irish branch of the MSD Women’s Network in 2015 to encourage an inclusive workplace within MSD, while also helping to address the vast under-representation of women in science and technology in Ireland. Embracing diversity and inclusion is a powerful catalyst for success, and the diversity of our people is part of what makes MSD a great place to work.”