The tech sector is buoyant, exports are strong, there are open job positions — where are people to fill them ?

My article from yesterday’s Irish Times Innovation Magazine

I recently had the privilege of attending the 2012 BT Young Scientist celebration dinner. Eric Doyle and Mark Kelly jointly gave a wonderful and well-delivered winners’ speech, explaining the background to their project. The “many-body problem” occurs frequently in both in nature and in man-made systems, where a collection of objects interact with one another: for example, molecules in a fluid; calls being routed across a mobile phone network; or traders around the globe in the international stock markets.

Eric and Mark chose to focus on objects interacting under gravity: specifically our complex solar system and how these moving bodies in turn collectively determine the actual paths through space taken by satellites. Understanding the mechanics of such systems to a high degree of accuracy could improve the fuel efficiency of satellites, by reducing course corrections to overcome gravitational pull by the heavenly bodies.

Eric and Mark are from Synge Street CBS. The school leads all others nationwide as regards the Young Scientist competition. Apart from Eric and Mark for this year, other overall winners have been Abdusalam Abubakar for 2007, and Ronan Larkin in 2004. Gohar Abbasi was overall runner-up in 2006. Keith Florea, Adrian Chisa and Sandeep Sihag were group winners in 2006, and Michael Mulhall and Francis Wasser likewise in 2005. In 2009, Andrei Triffo won best individual project and the Intel prize at the event. Many of these students were inspired by Jim Cooke, a physics and mathematics teacher, now retired (see my 2009 blog post about a Quiet Irish Hero). Eric and Mark spoke during their speech about consulting their former teacher Jim when selecting their choice of project.

The Young Scientist competition is clearly inspirational for many of our students. I, however, am consistently surprised by how relatively few students seem to follow through and pursue engineering and science careers. Despite a strong year for the IDA in 2011 with a 20 per cent annual increase in jobs in IDA-supported companies, chief executive Barry O’Leary noted in an interview on RTÉ’s News at One on 5th January last  [at 4:08 mins into the clip] that there would have been even more jobs created in 2011 had there been a larger pool of skilled staff available in Ireland, particularly for the ICT, life sciences and digital media sectors. Meanwhile there is anecdotal evidence of a serious shortage of skilled engineers and scientists in the Enterprise Ireland-assisted indigenous sector, so slowing economic growth.

In 2009, 8,420 students sat higher-level mathematics; in 2010, it dropped to 8,390 and then last year further to 8,237. In 2010, 4,877 sat higher-level physics; last year it dropped to 4,782. In 2010, 6,298 sat higher-level chemistry; last year it dropped to 6,272. While the numbers sitting the Leaving Certificate in the last two years are almost the same, it really is worrying that there has not been a very strong surge in those wishing to lay a foundation for a scientific or engineering career. The technology sector is buoyant in the economy, exports are very strong, there is an acknowledged skills shortage, employment is immediately available for the right skills, and yet there has not yet been any significant increase in secondary school activity and interest. It really is astonishing and disturbing.

The Irish Times had a topical editorial on the day when the Young Scientist results were announced, observing that scientific inquiry and intellect do not seem to be as culturally acceptable to the Irish as appreciation of the arts. And yet the notion of “Renaissance Man” embodies a polymath whose culture and learning embrace a wide range of subjects. Steve Jobs built Apple by seamlessly combining engineering insight, artistic design and business acumen.

During the last government, the Innovation Taskforce, of which I was a member, considered changes that must be nurtured in Irish society if our economy is to successfully rebuild. Exceptional teachers like Jim Cooke are few, but we noted the role that experienced engineers and scientists could play in working with the teaching profession to greatly enhance of our school system. We pointed out the critical role that public service broadcasting via RTÉ ought to play. Frankly, RTÉ’s programming is almost non-existent in this area – one can contrast the impact which Prof Brian Cox, and others, have had via the BBC on the interest in science in the UK school system.

What of this Government? It is difficult to see what impact Richard Bruton has so far made to seriously drive innovation in the economy. It is obscure whether Ruairí Quinn understands the improvements necessary in our educational system for an ethos of science and technology. It is unclear whether Pat Rabbitte considers innovation and technology critical topics for our public service broadcasting. It is uncertain whether Joan Burton sees the re-training opportunities to address the labour shortages and open job positions. And so far, it is far from clear that the Taoiseach and Tánaiste can steer a path among many moving and interacting parts.

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5 Responses to The tech sector is buoyant, exports are strong, there are open job positions — where are people to fill them ?

  1. Barry Cronin says:

    Hopefully projects like coderdojo.com will help improve the situation for ICT in the coming years.

  2. Tony Owens says:

    I think its fascinating that the numbers choosing STEM-type subjects at second level has declined as a proportion of total (after accounting for a slight increase in student numbers overall in each year). Understanding why that is would be very helpful. Some market research would not go amiss. I suspect that there may be perceptions that the required investment in a third level first degree and masters degree is unlikely to lead to adequately high and stable earnings in Ireland or any other English language country. Which, despite some areas of tightness in the labour market for programmers, architects, ‘new media’ people and medical device manufacturing staff, is a fair characterisation of the Irish jobs market.
    On top of issues around the teaching and leadership of science and engineering in Ireland, and the lack of graduate-level domestic job opportunity outside the IT services and medical device manufacturing areas.

    I am less concerned about the apparent inaction of the government in promoting STEM-like careers. Most people are sophisticated enough to realise the state is not really in a position to create private sector employment and perhaps also that the best thing the state can do to help overall employment is to reduce its own financial burden as rapidly as it can. I wouldn’t castigate ministers for lack of big initiatives – I have little confidence in their ability to engineer such things in a conservative country which has traditionally favoured the professions and state-backed administrative employment.

    Your point about the ability of senior STEM practitioners to help raise the profile of science and technology at early secondary school level in particular is well made. Somehow this type of volunteerism seems to be difficult to bring about. I did a bit of it for one of the engineering institutions once but soon decided that the pre-scripted approach to the presentation they wanted me to make was misleading and self-serving. I was also uncomfortable about the apparent lack of interest of that institution in embracing the needs of the entire profession and in particular its CPD needs in badly served areas such as innovation skills and intellectual property.

    Ireland has not always been indifferent towards STEM. When I was a lad the outreach activities of the Armagh Planetarium and the quality of the science museum in Belfast had an impact on me. I found the (then Aer LIngus-backed) Young Scientists event energising. On the other hand I found school curriculum mostly dull and unengaging and designed to implant facts and principles rather than evince curiosity, despite being fortunate in having a sparkly teacher. My experience of undergraduate teaching at TCD was that similar criticisms could be made. The elements of design, invention, projects, research methodology, business and so forth were paid lip service in what was very obviously a badly funded school. I learnt how to analyse behaviour and failure of pipes, turbines, dams, wings and structures which were largely conceptual constructs that I had rarely actually seen and knew rather little about. We never visited businesses or factories and only in our final year did we have external guest lecturers from such places – all of whom left a lasting impression of excitement and possibility. Only at postgraduate level after I ‘discovered’ the library and was able to use labs and machine shops and (eventually) CAD and engage with the fine minds of the staff and (later) senior engineers in FDI industries did I really start to learn. While 2/3’s of my undergraduate class promptly emigrated and few have returned since, there was a broad appreciation, interest in, and regard for science and engineering which has declined since. My point is that people like me (and you?) retained our passion for STEM-based careers and business despite the poverty of the foundation years of our educational experience, because it was ignited before the start of the STEM curriculum, and was at that time a respected career choice in Anglophone countries.

    This whole approach to training needs to be turned on its head. There are no quick fixes. A sense of curiosity and empowerment among 8 year old addicted gamers is hard to bring about but that is what is needed. Even if their parents have lost faith in the notion of a rewarding STEM career in the face of Chindian competition.
    Distorted sado-masochistic TV shows (The Apprentice and Dragons Den) are no substitute for Horizon and other fine pieces of public service programming in communicating the excitement and challenge of a STEM career (even if the rewards are questionable). Nor are regular pieces of state-originated PR about smart green nanobots, silicon docklands and other whimsies. Perhaps a presidential-sponsored volunteer programme of STEM-based training and small business development support, on and off the island, aimed at secondary school kids, involving a mix of short internships in interesting businesses and invention workshops? This could be competitive, involve immersive gaming, international travel, some physical training, extreme programming and some computational maths, networking by social media, and based around the concept of the project as Young Scientists is. A bit like an elite astronaut programme for entrepreneurial game developers.

    On the other hand it might be better to just ask the kids!

  3. sjkhayes says:

    When I were a lad (or at least when I was in secondary school) an A in honours maths gave one 40% more points than an A in say building construction.

    At some point in the intervening period, some genius decided to change this and make the points for honours maths equal the points for other subjects.

    There is a simple, blunt and cost free way to start to address this issue. Simply go back to the way it was. Give extra points for the subjects that the country wants students to study.

    You get what you reward.

    Shane

    • chrisjhorn says:

      Shane,

      I understand that additional points for Higher Level Leaving Certificate Mathematics have now been re-introduced?

      best wishes
      Chris

      • sjkhayes says:

        CHris,

        It is 25% extra at the A grade. Around 55% extra for if you get a D. I think this is playing around the edges.

        It needs to be worth double or triple to attract the “smart” kids away from Geography.

        Similarly, it needs to be extended to Physics, Chemistry, etc.

        (Who needs Geography now that we have Google anyway 🙂

        See below from
        http://www.careersportal.ie/news/news.php?Heading=Leaving+Cert+maths+bonus+points+introduced&ID=800115584

        ——————————–

        Every student who achieves a D3 in the subject will receive an extra 25 points, plus the current 45. Students who gain an A1 will receive a total of 125 points – the 100 currently on offer, plus the bonus points.

        Making the announcement, the Irish Universities Association (IUA) said more still needs to be done to encourage students to opt for the higher level paper.

        Commenting on the news, the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Mary Coughlan, said the introduction of the new system sends a clear signal to students about the importance of maths.

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