Follow your heart, not just career prospects

Choose your course wisely – the emphasis on which sectors will have jobs in five years’ time is slowly melting away in an ever-changing workplace


Parents, it might be time for you to butt out of your child’s college decision. Your child’s working life will be fundamentally different to your experience. So, urging them to choose a particular route because you think it will have good career prospects is a mistake, because some jobs will be obsolete within a generation, while other roles that are unimaginable today will be common within a decade.

Peter Cosgrove, founder of the Future of Work Institute with CPL Recruitment, is sceptical of the notion that students should choose a course based on job prospects.

“Lots of students don’t know what they want to do. Coding is very popular with young people at the moment; if kids seem to like computers, sure, get them to do coding. But don’t assume there will be jobs in coding, because coding is process-based and anything that is process-based will eventually be taken over by a machine,” he says.

The world of work is fundamentally shifting. As much as employers will need IT graduates, or chefs, or language skills, they will also need people who can think and work in certain ways, says Cosgrove.

“It is never a good idea to choose a course because you think it will be in demand in four years’ time – unless, of course, it ties in with what you want to do and what you feel passionate about. There is too much emphasis on jobs and careers, but schools should be spending more time helping their students to discover what they are passionate about.”

He adds that technology is not the future, but is here and now, and that students and their parents may have very different views of what technology is. “Technology is not four guys sitting in a corner fixing a computer anymore, it is in everything we do.

“Now we hear of students being told there is no point doing an engineering course because more work will be done by machines, but engineering is actually about problem-solving and analysis, and those are skills we still need. If you do accounting, it means you can present numbers in a way that makes them comprehensible. If you do data analytics, the most important part of the job spec is that you are curious. And curiosity is an important trait in many jobs.”


Deirdre Parker, senior careers adviser at University College Cork, says: “Two mega-trends will continue to transform what we do at work and how we do it. These are globalisation and technology. Technology will increasingly pervade all sectors and will lead to the continued emergence of new, hybrid occupations that didn’t exist 30 years ago. Not all students have entrepreneurial aspirations, with most seeking security and stability. But as employers adopt more flexible modes of employment, including part-time and hourly contracts, those with an entrepreneurial mindset, with the flexibility to switch between different roles or sectors and to take advantage of opportunities, are likely to fare better in the workplace.”

Think like an entrepreneur, Parker advises. This means students taking responsibility for achieving their goals; researching the skills and contacts they need for a particular field of work, perhaps volunteering in the student or local community; and above all, developing the emotional resilience to bounce back from rejection and disappointment in an uncertain working world.

Limits options

To avoid a degree that potentially limits employment options, Parker, like all career guidance advisers, says broad arts, science or commerce programmes are generally better as students can specialise down the line.

She adds that while it is useful for students to have an idea of future skills needs, it could influence anxious or confused students to choose courses that are not a good fit with their natural aptitudes and interests. “Students also need to be aware that some areas, such as construction, will ebb and flow cyclically so the job market on entry to a degree programme can be the polar opposite of the one encountered on graduation. In a less-rewarding job market, genuine career motivation is more important than ever.”

Career motivation

Dave Kilmartin, head of the career development centre at the Dublin Institute of Technology, says career motivation is a big factor in course choice. The predominant narrative is telling students the jobs are in science, technology, engineering and maths, and that they should choose these courses. Sectors including tourism, hospitality, construction and property come in and out of favour, depending on the economic climate of the time.

“Follow your heart, or follow the jobs?” he asks. “Actually, these career motivations are not mutually exclusively. Society and the economy benefit when individuals are in careers that are personally meaningful and satisfying.

“We need to encourage students to first look inwards to explore their motivations and ideas, to understand their interests and personality as well as their skills, abilities and values.

“Then we put these ideals through a pragmatic filter and look at their family, peers, the economy and what they might need to compromise on. This way, the heart and the head are taken into consideration.”

GradIreland’s FYI

What would I do in this job? What skills are needed in this sector? They’re pertinent questions for any college applicant, but answers aren’t always easy to come by, especially in the midst of Leaving Cert stress. A new initiative from GradIreland is hoping to tackle this for both Leaving Cert and current third-level students.

GradIreland #FYI (the FYI stands for first-year initiative) includes short, three-minute interviews with recent graduates who have just entered the workplace, explaining what they do and what they like most about it.

Mark Mitchell of GradIreland says it is difficult to know what sectors will have job vacancies in five-15 years. He believes that, whether or not there is strong demand for builders or engineers or IT specialists, employers will place as much, if not more, value on graduates with digital, creative, analytical and communications skills. How do you prove you have these sills? “Student societies and clubs, students’ unions, the student newspaper, volunteering programmes and work placements,” says Mitchell.

“The extra-curricular is important too, as it is where these skills are developed. If you’re really thinking about jobs of the future, make sure you choose a college where the mix of clubs and societies and volunteer organisations matches your interests just as much as the course.”

Growth areas: Advice from DIT and the expert group on future skills needs

The expert group on future skills, which advises the Government on current and future skills needs, has a strong record when it comes to identifying where the jobs are likely to be.

But even the group gives a health warning with its advice, which is that the most important factor in course choice is that “students should pursue courses of study in areas they are interested in and have an aptitude for”.

According to a report compiled by the group, “digitisation is continuing to transform workplaces, while softskills such as flexibility, entrepreneurship, adaptability, problem-solving, conflict management, leadership and management capability and interpersonal skills will be key requirements for all occupations across all sectors and at all skill levels”.

This means, in effect, that students with an eye to the future jobs market should also consider whether their chosen courses will help them to develop those skills.


The group highlights the importance of different skill sets, which it groups into categories.

Transversal skills include management, entrepreneurial and people skills; creativity, design and innovation; and creative and analytical thinking skills.

Cross-sectoral skills can be used in many different types of jobs across all sectors; they are of growing global importance and include ICT skills, data analytics, foreign language and cultural awareness, engineering and business skills such as sales and marketing.

Sectors to watch

The group also outlines some sectors which will continue to require very specific skill-sets including:

- Financial services – including in the areas of risk, compliance, accounting, business intelligence, ICT and data analytics. These skills can be found in engineering, mathematics, data analytics, business and law graduates.

- ICT sector – core technology skills, eg software developers, cloud, security, networking and infrastructure and a combination of the technical skills with business/analytic/ foreign language skills as the skills requirements become more complex.

- Medical devices – mechanical, automation and validation engineers; polymer technicians, software engineers, quality engineers and regulatory compliance experts.

- Bio-pharma – technicians and senior process scientists, pharma co-vigilance personnel, biotechnologists, biochemists, engineers, including precision engineering.

- The demand for civil and structural engineers, for both public-sector infrastructure programmes and private projects, is currently increasing. And there are not enough students to meet current industry requirements.

- Demand for graduates from electrical and electronic courses is strong, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

- ICT graduates can name their price. The need for people with computer science skills isn’t going anywhere. Software, data analytics, financial services and distribution are among the sectors requiring strong ICT skills.

- Hospitality: earlier this year, we reported on the chronic shortage of chefs. It’s been a feature of the labour market for a number of years now and, with supply so low, a career in cheffing offers strong employment prospects for those with a passion for food.

- Manufacturing: expected to grow by 43,000 jobs over the period 2011-2020, including the biopharmaceutical industry.

- Data analysis: 18,000 extra jobs forecast between 2013 and 2020.

- Construction: tends to be cyclical, and graduates should consider they’ll need to work abroad. But, for the moment at least, there is a huge shortage of qualified graduates for the construction industry, particularly quantity surveyors and building surveyors. And the skills acquired on those courses can, if there is another downturn, be used in other industries.

- International financial services, engineering and industrial products and the agri-food industry have all been identified as sectors where Ireland is well-placed to grow.

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