This piece appeared in the Irish Times on 8th April last.
“And not one of them speaking about recession!” So exclaimed Senator Marie-Louise O’Donnell in her radio interview with Pat Kenny on RTE Radio 1 on Tuesday 26th March last. She was discussing the 2,500 staff in Google’s offices in Dublin’s Barrow Street: 64 nationalities with an average age of just 27, and with 46 languages spoken in the complex. Marie-Louise enthusiastically described the culture of team work, open plan layout, flexible hours, and with staff benefits including high quality food available at all times, a gymnasium, and medical and dental facilities – and soon to be augmented by a 25m swimming pool.
The 2013 “Action Plan for Jobs” published by the Department of Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation observes that there are at least 95,000 people directly employed in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector alone. It is thus always a little surprising to me that the general media, and RTE as the national broadcaster in particular, seem to largely overlook the high technology sectors (including ICT, medical devices and pharmaceuticals) of our economy. By contrast, RTE carries extensive coverage of the agri-food area, including daily bulletins and weekly special programs. But the web site of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine asserts that there are about 50,000 people directly employed in the agri-food sector. I of course accept that agri-food is a key contributor to our economy, but observe that high technologies also are – and have more than twice the employment!
It was therefore a rare moment for many in the Irish public, when Marie-Louise O’Donnell lifted a veil on another part of Ireland, as she described her visit to Google. Instead of the daily diet of anger and distrust resulting from a deep recession, unemployment and debt, she was able to gush over the sheer energy and vitality of a community of staff and management working closely together on world class challenges, successfully competing with their peers elsewhere in their industry both here and worldwide.
RTE at last does seem to be acknowledging that a significant proportion of the the Irish public are involved in the high technology industries in Ireland, along also with investigative science. After over eighty-five years of public broadcasting, on Thursday 4th April last RTE announced the appointment of its first ever (incredibly!) full time science and technology correspondent. The former general news journalist Will Goodbody is to be sincerely congratulated in his new role. It is also positive that RTE Radio ‘Drama On One’ programme is currently running a series of four weekly radio plays inspired by science.
Not everything is rosy in the high technology economy. For several years, there have been a deficit of appropriately skilled staff, particularly for the indigenous companies. Frequently, employment demand is met by skilled immigrants rather than sufficient numbers of our own suitably educated graduates. Of course, many young graduates want to travel overseas, whether emigrating Irish or immigrant graduates coming to Ireland to fill open high technology positions. A further challenge is the sheer rate of change of technology. Without a continuous investment in new skills, professionals in the ICT sector – including academic staff lecturing new tranches of third level students – can become left behind. Furthermore an ample supply of private risk capital – which can only be sustained by high rates of financial returns – remains an issue for the indigenous companies.
Nevertheless, the challenges in the high technology sector seem a different world from the daily media narrations of the challenges faced by many in today’s Ireland. The quality of the work environment, pay, benefits, work satisfaction and the opportunity to travel, contrast greatly between these different worlds. At least some teenagers now appear to be responding to the opportunities in high technology. In the last year the numbers entering high technology third level courses have begun to reverse a very long decline, and only recently have the numbers of Leaving Certificate students sitting high level science and mathematics begun to increase.
A broader media coverage of the high technology sectors might not only encourage more of our young to consider a high technology career path, but also help at least some of our unemployed make a transition. Re-training is possible, and there is a wealth of online material to help those willing to devote the necessary study. Much of the Irish high technology sector requires language skills, in which Ireland has been weak. Sales and marketing competencies can be taught and yet there are few courses available to encourage unemployed to consider a new career. Creative solutions could do much to reenergize those currently lost to the productive economy. A sustained news flow, commentary and analysis by the mainstream media would undoubtedly not only inspire many, but also influence public policy to further strengthen the sector.
Ireland in 2013 may seem economically barren to many, but there is an alternative and strong economy regularly overlooked by the daily preoccupations of the mainstream media. Our modern “Hidden Ireland” may be as valuable as that described by author Daniel Corkery in his famous 1924 book of the same title, on the hitherto unrecognized Irish literature of the 18th century.