Falling interest in technology courses should worry our politicians

Education system lags far behind ambitions to make Ireland a technology powerhouse

University lecturers are teaching basic computing concepts which could and should be taught in primary school, says software engineer Stephanie Sheehan. Photo: iStock

University lecturers are teaching basic computing concepts which could and should be taught in primary school, says software engineer Stephanie Sheehan. Photo: iStock

 

Taoiseach, we have a problem.

That’s something Leo Varadkar is probably hearing more and more these days, but he would do well to take a very close look at a worrying statistic in today’s CAO results.

We know how important technology is and how the country’s economic future will be greatly influenced by our ability to produce highly skilled software developers, computer scientists and engineers capable of leading the drive for technological innovation and advancement.

Those of us working in the software industry live that aspiration every day and drive it on relentlessly.

But on the political, social and educational levels there is a disturbing gap between aspiration and reality.

We’ve had no shortage of national plans and programmes stressing what needs to be done.

Skills strategy

Take, for example, the first sentence in Ireland’s National Skills Strategy 2025: “Ireland is competing globally on the basis of talent and on Ireland’s growing reputation for innovation.

“Winning the war for talent can be achieved by ensuring that all of Ireland’s citizens have access to the skills they need to succeed in life; and Irish business has the people with the skills they need to grow.”

Here’s more: “Employers cannot source more relevant skills without responsive education and training providers nor without students pursuing the right education and training courses.”

Speaking at its 2016 launch, minister of State Damien English said: “Winning the war for talent is key to keeping the recovery going and for future sustainable economic growth.”

He said this as the Manpower Group reported the highest global shortage in skilled talent in more than a decade. Of more than 42,000 employers surveyed, 40 per cent reported difficulties in filling roles.

So the Government speaks of winning the war for talent in the context of increased global competition for fewer highly-skilled people when our future depends on being at the cutting edge of technology.

Yet this year’s CAO applications show not an increase but rather a fall in the number of people opting for third-level engineering and technology courses.

A 5 per cent drop might not seem dramatic, but it illustrates a very worrying situation.

Our politicians speak of Ireland as a technology powerhouse but our education system is woefully behind, and failing, our progressive indigenous software industry.

We are in a situation where we are trying to introduce students to computer science at third level with no prior context or experience in the subject.

We have university lecturers teaching basic concepts which could and should be taught in primary school.

How crazy, how backward is that?

In contrast, the software industry is moving at lightning speed. It’s a fast-paced exciting playground.

To keep pace, you need to keep learning and think outside the box. It is that curiosity and problem-solving mindset that we should be nurturing from primary school up.

The basic skills of writing code should definitely not be the focus of third-level education, as it is currently, and should be as natural as learning the ABC in junior infants.

Lack of planning

The usual basis for the tech powerhouse political grandstand is the location here of the big guns such as Apple, Google and Facebook, but 80 per cent of Ireland’s software industry is indigenous.

Irish entrepreneurs are blazing a trail, creating successful companies, world-beating products and using cutting-edge technology to do so.

And yet we have increasingly to look abroad to recruit the talent we need to fill the jobs we’re creating, because successive governments have been so behind the ball in planning to create the environment and education system the country needs to prosper in a ferociously competitive global market.

That 5 per cent CAO drop will make a bad situation worse. Despite the massive growth in the software industry here and the great efforts to encourage students, especially female students, we have failed to entice them again this year.

So where are we going wrong?

The roles we are trying to fill are highly paid, exciting and rewarding.

My industry colleagues and I go to great lengths to ensure the people we work with are happy and prosper in their careers.

The opportunities are huge and yet they are proving not to be attractive for greater numbers of young students.

Why is this?

We need to take a step back and look at the path they have travelled to get to here, what opinions they have formed and why have they formed them.

There is no quick win, but a concerted, well-resourced and sustained campaign to encourage more girls to become interested in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects must be an absolute priority.

We have seen the emergence of many industry-supported initiatives – such as Sense About Maths and Coder Dojo at primary school level and iWish and Smarter Placements at secondary level – which are helping our children on how to code and think logically and laterally because our education system isn’t doing this.

There is also an acute need to make Stem and technology-related careers attractive to girls is of critical importance.

Last week, Microsoft Ireland’s chief executive, Cathriona Hallahan, revealed the company’s research showed that Irish girls start to lose interest in Stem subjects at the age of 15.

She correctly pointed out that this fall-off is limiting the careers and life choices of some of this country’s brightest young people and is having a negative impact on Ireland’s ability to grow its economy as it further aggravates the growing IT skills shortage.

The research also showed that when they pictured a scientist, engineer or mathematician, 44 per cent of girls said they still pictured a man first and 30 per cent said they did not understand how Stem subjects were relevant to their lives.

None of which surprised me, because it brought to mind the words of my beautiful, smart, 13-year-old niece as she explained to me her reasons for not joining a coding class: “Coding is for boys and geeks . . .”

It stumped me, as I had spent 20 happy and fulfilled years surrounded by code and software developers, but it exemplified the need to rebrand the perception of technology in the eyes of girls and women.

It’s entirely possible, because I’m delighted to say my young niece is now happily coding and loves telling me about the latest “cool” project she’s working on with her class.

But the Government, the education system and the industry have a much bigger job to do to make technology-related careers attractive for women.

It can be done. Just ask my niece.

Stephanie Sheehan is director of engineering at Poppulo