Skills shortages can be addressed


LEFTFIELD:EVEN AT A time of severe economic challenges, with unemployment running at 14.5 per cent, employers have repeatedly expressed concerns about shortages of suitably qualified and skilled staff. The IT sector is a case in point, with staff being recruited from abroad to fill key positions.

The problem is not unique to Ireland. A recent study by ManPower Group in the US, where unemployment is just below 9 per cent, found that 52 per cent of US companies report difficulty filling job vacancies, and link this to lack of “hard” job skills or technical skills (47 per cent) and candidates lack of experience (35 per cent).

There is an abundance of talented students and relatively high participation rates in higher education (60plus per cent), so a superficial analysis could suggest a mismatch between what employers want and the graduate talent being generated by the universities. But there is more to this than meets the eye.

To a greater or lesser extent Irish universities are attempting to provide the kind of graduate expertise needed by our economy. For example, UL graduates enjoy high employment rates (53 per cent with primary degrees (10 per cent higher than the sectoral average) and a further 32 per cent progress on to more specialised study to enhance their employability. If students can gain admission to UL (we have very high completion rates ) they stand an excellent chance of graduating and getting jobs. So getting to college and graduating will give you excellent employment prospects.

Of the 352 students who entered UL in September of this year with 500 Leaving Certificate points or more, the top five courses they chose were Physical Education Teaching, Law Accounting, Physiotherapy, Psychology and Biological Science Teaching. So some 40 per cent of the highest achievers chose programmes leading to jobs that will most likely be in the public sector or in areas not directly linked to the knowledge economy, where the solution to our national economic woes lies.

Recently published data by the HEA show that more than 81 per cent of students on honours degree programmes secured one of their top three choices (56 per cent got their number one preference). This indicates that Irish universities are, by and large, meeting students’ needs and wishes.

So if specific sectors of the economy are experiencing a skills shortage and want to ensure they have an adequate pipeline of talent to sustain and grow their businesses, it is imperative that Irish businesses play a leading role in highlighting the benefits that students will reap if they follow a particular career path.

I made this point at a recent round-table discussion with some of Ireland’s business leaders. I suggested that if industries want to have their current and future human capital needs met, they need to use their considerable marketing firepower to show students how a particular course will lead to a challenging, well-rewarded and fulfilling job in a sector that has a sustainable future.

If students are to take risks during their early education by taking subjects like Maths and Science at Leaving Cert level, they need to be sure they will reap the fruits of their efforts when they eventually join the labour market. Employers can play a key role in incentivising students to follow such paths.

It is evident that a dedicated endeavour by all parties is required. Irish universities are happy to collaborate with employers to ensure that talent is nurtured and encouraged to contribute in sectors that are going to help our economy recover.

Don Barry is president of the Univeristy of Limerick