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Building a smarter future – from STEM to economy in full bloom

Preventing students from prematurely closing off career opportunities is one of programme’s main aims

Managed by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) in partnership with Engineers Ireland, the Smart Futures programme is aimed at promoting science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers to secondary school students, parents, guidance councillors and teachers.

Smart Futures aims to increase the uptake of STEM subjects at second and third level by improving national coordination of STEM careers outreach activities. Over 50 partner organisations are involved in its volunteer programme, visiting schools and delivering career talks, while its advisory group includes senior members of industry across technology, engineering, life sciences and energy sectors, as well as education and policy. SAP, IBM, Abbott Ireland, Boston Scientific, Tyndall National Institute, Henkel, Novartis, INSIGHT and Teagasc are among its key supporters.

It also provides careers information via www.SmartFutures.ie, as well as access to role models through the volunteer programme.

Over the past two years Smart Futures has engaged with over 54,000 secondary students through school visits and outreach engagements such as STEM careers roadshows and career fairs. It is estimated that STEM volunteers donated more than 5,000 hours to the programme in 2014.

Already in 2015, volunteers have visited 121 schools to deliver career talks, reaching some 4,235 secondary students and 121 teachers. By the end of the current academic year a further 18 STEM careers outreach events will have taken place reaching approximately 3,600 students.

"We're trying to get more people to hear about Smart Futures," says Dr Ruth Freeman, SFI strategy and communications director. "If we can get all the people together who are promoting STEM, it would be very good. There are lots of people doing great things and we can offer a really powerful umbrella for those efforts. Some schools get lots of visits from companies and some get very few."

Skills gap

The aim is to combine the efforts of the very companies and other organisations currently promoting STEM subjects in an effort to address the growing skills gap in this area. Smart Futures offers more than just a brand, however. “We provide volunteer training,” says Freeman. “Going out in front of transition year students can be terrifying. We make volunteers comfortable about talking about themselves and explaining their jobs. Our overall goal is to get all the people giving clear and consistent information on career choices. We don’t want people to close off career opportunities.”

This early closure of career paths is a key issue and often comes about as a result of negative perceptions of STEM jobs and the type of people who work in them. “We know that there are a number of stereotypes about STEM careers that may discourage a student from choosing these subjects for their Leaving Cert, or as part of the CAO. The reality, however, is that there is no end to the variety of careers in areas like technology or science. There are exciting prospects for graduates in well-paid roles that are making a real difference to our society. From 2004 to 2014 employment in ICT companies grew by more than 30 per cent at a time where overall employment grew by only 1 percent. Salaries in these companies are also 29 percent above the national average.”

Informed decision making is what Freeman is looking for. “Given that one of the most frequent conversations with anyone sitting their Leaving Certificate will be to ask what they are choosing for the CAO, we want to ensure that people are fully informed before making their decisions. Sometimes potential career routes aren’t as obvious to parents when thinking of science, technology, engineering or maths. SmartFutures.ie offers the opportunity for students and parents to hear from people studying and working in a variety of exciting areas like pharmaceuticals, cybersecurity, data science and biotechnology.”

Diverse pipeline

Tony O’Donnell of SAP believes industry has much to gain from participation in Smart Futures. “From an industry point of view, if we want to ensure that Ireland remains an attractive place for technology businesses we have to have a sustainable and diverse pipeline of people coming into the industry. And it is much better to engage at secondary level and even earlier to encourage young people to take up these subjects and continue with them at third level than to compete for a limited number of graduates at the other end.”

He also believes that Smart Futures offers a good way of communicating the very wide range of careers offered by science and technology. “The future of the technology industry is not just people writing code or designing microchips. It is much broader than that and encompasses a range of other areas, like design. Smart Futures is a very useful way of introducing the industry to people with those skills. Ireland is very good at design and it is something we should be actively promoting to show what we can do for technology business.”

According to O’Donnell, Smart Futures is a core part of what SAP does as a company in order to remain successful for the future. “We are lucky in that we have been able to attract very talented, enthusiastic people to come and work for us and we encourage them to volunteer to work on Smart Futures. We give them training to do it and we encourage them to think about it as part of their continuing professional development. It is a great learning opportunity to communicate abstract concepts to people outside the industry.”

Leo Clancy is responsible for the technology sector for IDA Ireland and he believes this country has done exceptionally well in meeting the talent needs of those companies, so far. "The predominant factor in investment decisions now is how they can get the talent they need," he says. "And we have been able to supply that talent because we have a great base of companies here and a great education system. We also have the flexibility to bring in a lot of people from overseas when necessary. The Smart Futures programme is doing very well in ensuring that we have the talented people who will be required in the longer term.

Great career

“If you are a talented computer scientist or electronic engineer you will get a very well-paid job. I had a great career in engineering. There are really interesting and varied career paths for engineers and Smart Futures is doing a very important job in helping get that across to people and getting them to see the career opportunities and not to view engineering and technology as one career.”

Ruth Freeman returns to the theme of young people making life choices too soon. “It is terrifying to think that people are making these choices when they are just 15 or 16,” she points out. “They might be closing off careers with the subject choices at that stage. People might think they are not science-oriented but then when you talk to them about sports science or food science they might be interested. Students at that age can also be very socially responsible so when you talk to them about environmental sciences and climate changes, that interests them as well. We are trying to get young people to keep an open mind.”

And the message to companies is that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to their efforts to promote STEM subjects and careers. “They can continue doing their own thing,” she notes. “But they can easily tap into a national level Smart Futures infrastructure, as well as avail of an opportunity to strengthen their message and get it out to a much wider audience.”

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