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Meeting the recruitment challenge

A number of incentives, both from academia and industry, are in place to increase awareness of careers in R&D and to equip students with the skills for research roles

The SFI Centres for Research Training programme will launch in 2018 with the aim of delivering postgraduate research and training programmes with a focus on employability, professionalism, and sectoral and international mobility. Photograph: iStock

The SFI Centres for Research Training programme will launch in 2018 with the aim of delivering postgraduate research and training programmes with a focus on employability, professionalism, and sectoral and international mobility. Photograph: iStock

 

While competition for qualified researchers is intense, this is not necessarily a sign of a skills shortage, according to Ibec head of education Tony Donohoe. “I wouldn’t characterise it as a skills shortage,” he says. “The skills are there. We are producing a lot more postgraduates across various disciplines now. But there is work to be done on the engagement piece. A lot of postgrads, PhDs in particular, tend not to see beyond the academy for their careers. The challenge is to introduce them to broader opportunities. We also need to work at making business aware of the skills available there.”

Part of the difficulty is the fact that industry is more or less competing with itself when it comes to research skills. “Companies hire postgrads for all sorts of different reasons,” Donohoe explains. “There are employers who require specific skills in areas like data analytics, IT security, and everybody is getting concerned about robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence. There are always skills shortages in these areas. But it’s hard to separate these jobs from R&D roles.

“It’s not like the hospitality sector or the construction industry, which are crying out for skills,” he continues. “You have to look at why companies employ researchers. In many cases, it is because they are looking for a deep understanding and knowledge of the area, almost a vocational interest in it. It’s not necessarily for R&D.”

There is also the issue of the suitability of academic researchers for industry R&D roles. Trying to cram a PhD into three years doesn’t allow a lot of time for students to acquire the skills that will prepare them for R&D careers in industry.

This is set to be addressed by a new research training programme from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). The SFI Centres for Research Training programme will launch in 2018 with the aim of delivering postgraduate research and training programmes with a focus on employability, professionalism, and sectoral and international mobility. The programme will provide training for cohorts of research masters and PhD students commencing in 2019, with new cohorts of students enrolling in subsequent years for a total of up to six student intakes.

The issue is also being tackled at industry level. “Our aspiration is to help Irish students better see the potential that undoubtedly exists for successful, fulfilling careers utilising STEM disciplines in Ireland, with locally-based companies such as AbbVie,” says Caroline McClafferty, HR director with AbbVie. “As a research-driven innovative company, we believe it is important for us to be proactive on this matter so we can ensure a talent pipeline is in place for all companies active in STEM areas.”

Promoting awareness of career opportunities in research is an important facet of the company’s activity in this area. “Ireland may be a global biopharma powerhouse producing innovative, life-changing products positively impacting millions of people around the world but research suggests that many young people have very low awareness of this activity. More needs to be done to highlight role models working in STEM and the diversity of career opportunities available across the sector,” she says.

Science education programmes

AbbVie supports a number of science education programmes for children and students of all ages and launched SEEK in 2014. This is a global education programme delivered by company volunteers which aims to spark a child’s interest in science and to play a part in creating Ireland’s next generation of leaders in this field.

“This global programme was piloted in Ireland and workshops now take place annually at primary schools in Dublin, Cork and Sligo, areas where AbbVie has a local footprint,” says McClafferty. “The programme was recently expanded to help stimulate interest and understanding of engineering and what engineers do.”

A number of schools have been selected from across Dublin, Cork and Sligo to visit AbbVie workplaces and interact with employees from a wide range of professional backgrounds. “This helps to demystify the industry and also encourages them to consider STEM disciplines as Leaving Certificate, university and career options,” she continues. “The goal is to highlight career opportunities in AbbVie and other pharmaceutical companies. At AbbVie, we also believe that positive role models can play a critical role in getting young people, especially females, interested in science and we support a number of internal and external initiatives including our own Women Leaders in Action (WLA) programme to promote STEM-related careers and inspire young women.”