It’s one of the biggest decisions facing students as they fill out their CAO forms: should they follow their hearts and go with the courses they’re most passionate about – or should they base their decisions on money and career prospects?
Some CAO applicants might be lucky and have career ambitions that match up with the most lucrative job prospects, but many will have no idea where they’d like to work in five years’ time.
Should you go for the popular courses?
This year there has been a jump in applications for courses linked to the economic recovery, with more students competing for places in architecture, engineering and technology (up 13 per cent), business and construction (both up 8 per cent).
Demand for nursing courses is up by 11 per cent, but, of course, it’s early days yet, and the points requirements could still rise or fall by July 1st, when the CAO change-of-mind window closes.
Una Halligan is chairwoman of the expert group on future skills needs, which has a fairly solid record in predicting likely job trends. "There's no point in choosing a career based on the money if your heart isn't in it," she says. " It won't be rewarding no matter how much you're paid. That said, it does make sense to be savvy about the market."
Recent research from the Higher Education Authority shows that computer-science graduates are in high demand and are likely to rake in the highest earnings. Within just nine months of graduation more than 60 per cent are earning at least €29,000. Engineers and health and welfare graduates also make good money.
Halligan says that the single biggest trend from the last four years has been the growth of the ICT sector – and that there’s a shortage of graduates to fill the roles.
“This is a global issue. We are bringing in overseas workers, but that is still not enough, so it may be worthwhile for young people to look at careers in this area. They are lucrative, in constant demand and very mobile, in that people can travel the world with them.”
Demand for construction courses slumped dramatically after the 2008 crash, but they've been on a steady climb for the past few years; the construction industry has highlighted how, even if there were to be a major programme of house building to tackle the housing crisis, Ireland would still have a major shortage of qualified workers.
But memories of that catastrophic crash loom large, and parents have been reluctant to encourage their children into the industry.
“Everyone understands that construction can go up and down, but Ireland is well placed for construction now, as there hasn’t been any for such a long time,” says Halligan. “These are portable skills that can be taken around the world.”
Biopharma and food processing are two other major growth areas, but Halligan says that, with so many global financial and tech firms headquartered in Ireland, languages are where it’s at.
“English isn’t enough any more. You don’t necessarily have to do a degree in a foreign language, but you should hone up on your skills. Go abroad on an Erasmus year or do it as a module on a college course. Or go overseas and work in that language.”
That’s not all. In Ireland and across the world there’s a huge shortage of qualified chefs, and restaurants are struggling to find staff. It’s perhaps no wonder, as it’s seen as a very tough career: on your feet all day, long hours, lots of evening and weekend work and the likelihood of being yelled at.
It is beginning to affect quality, and the restaurant industry is starting to change, to make it a more attractive and better-paid profession. Anyone graduating from culinary college – especially the very good chefs – over the next few years is likely to have strong job prospects.
Ultimately, says Halligan, students should remember that college courses, whatever they are, are increasingly aimed at teaching skills such as critical and analytical thinking, teamwork and enterprise. Students who can demonstrate to an employer that they have developed these skills will do well.
Should you avoid the unpopular courses?
Eight years ago students who had grown up with plans to become builders got a smack in the face when the construction industry imploded. They faced a dilemma: should they abandon their long-held plans or plough on?
For this year’s cohort of graduates, choosing their college courses at a time of huge demand for construction graduates, that dilemma has faded.
But a small number of other courses have dropped in popularity. Demand for agriculture courses has fallen by a significant 23 per cent, veterinary medicine is down by 7 per cent and the number of applications to arts and social-sciences degrees continues its decline, down 2 per cent.
Somewhat surprisingly, given the heavy emphasis on science courses over the past few years, demand is down, although only by less than 1 per cent.
Are these statistical quirks or are students really trying to divine what jobs will be less in demand when they finish college?
Fergal Scully is a guidance counsellor at Rathmines College of Further Education.
“It is very difficult to say what the economic situation will be like five years from now when a graduate is looking for work. You can only make guesses, and it is easier to do well at a subject in college if you enjoy it.”
There’s not necessarily a reason that this years’ Leaving Cert students are, so far at least, slightly less interested in applying to study veterinary medicine at UCD, which is the only third-level college offering the course. Last year there was also a slight drop in demand, with points falling from 580 to 575.
Scully suggests that some students might be looking at the high points for veterinary medicine and deciding that they have no chance of doing so well. (If he’s right, this is a mistake: students with a desire to be vets should put it on the form anyway. If they do get enough points and veterinary medicine wasn’t on the form, the door is closed; if they don’t get enough points, they’ll have other options).
Somewhat more striking is the huge drop in points for agriculture. “It’s possible that the end of milk quotas has led to some uncertainty around farming, so students from farming backgrounds might be looking to other areas,” Scully says.
The agrifood industry has been one of Ireland’s bright spots, even during the years of recession. The expert group on future skills needs says that this doesn’t look like slowing down.
Agriculture students aren’t necessarily going to be working on the farm; they’re well placed to work in the food industry, so it may not be the wisest move to change their mind because of a drop in popularity.
The fall in demand for arts degrees continues a trend from the past few years, and follows the release of figures from the Higher Education Authority that show that arts and humanities graduates found it harder to get work and that about a third of those who did find employment said their degree was of little relevance to their job. And within nine months of graduation 25 per cent were earning less than €13,000, compared with €29,000 for computer-science graduates.
But, says Scully, employers still do need arts graduates with the ability to think critcally and to approach problems from a different angle, so the humanities shouldn’t be discounted.
Scully says it is important to have an eye to the future, but it shouldn’t be a student’s primary motivation in choosing a course. “If there is a course struggling to attract numbers, and which may lead to a skills shortage in the future, it may be a good bet for students looking for job security. But ultimately, if you’re lucky enough to have an interest in a particular area, you should stick with it.”