‘Our young people are as good as any in the world. It’s our job to help them’
A national strategy with education at its heart is key to future prosperity, says Intel’s Jim O’Hara
ANY visitor to Intel’s massive chip fabrication facility in Leixlip would be familiar with a photo-essay book called One Digital Day, which sits in its reception area.
Produced in the late Nineties when PCs were Intel’s biggest growth engine and the internet was just taking off, the book’s introduction reads: “Today there are nearly 15 billion microchips of some kind in use – the equivalent of two powerful computers for every man, woman and child on the planet.”
Zoom forward to 2010 and you can imagine the number of microchips in the world has sky-rocketed, with an estimated four billion mobile phones in use worldwide at any one time and one billion personal computers. Some 400 million computers will ship this year; 10 million of these will be the new tablet devices like the Apple iPad, two million of which have been sold in just two months.
To Jim O’Hara, general manager of Intel in Ireland and his colleagues, we are still only in the Dark Ages of the IT revolution, which will transform not only technology but also healthcare and science and much, much more.
Last year, Intel in Ireland marked its 20th anniversary here, having converted a
former stud farm in 1989 into one of the most sophisticated manufacturing operations in the Northern hemisphere. The Fab 24 facility processes 300mm wafers on both 90 and 65-nanometer process technologies. And as well as manufacturing, Intel has a wireless R&D operation in Shannon.
O’Hara believes not only in the longevity of the Intel plant in Ireland but also in raising the country out of the economic doldrums to be one of the most productive and intelligent economies on the planet.
“Some 60pc of the wealth-generating industries in Ireland in 10 to 20 years’ time will have people in them who will excel at subjects like science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). We need to build an education system that can deliver this.”
He also believes Ireland needs to increase its investment in R&D infrastructure such as the CRANN Institute at Trinity College Dublin.
“My big fear now is with the tight budgets we could regress and lose a lot of the momentum we created over the past few years. A continuous long-term investment in creating a very strong R&D system is a fundamental.”
Inspiration exists, says O’Hara, in areas like the digital media industry as demonstrated by Dubliner Richard Baneham who, in March, picked up the Best Visual Effects Oscar for his work on Avatar.
“If you look at the companies involved and the really exciting things they are doing, it’s amazing. I would ask those folks what is it about Ireland that has helped them do more of that stuff and what is it about Ireland that got in their way?
“My guess is that broadband will come back to be one of those hurdles. Another hurdle will be how Government incentivises those kinds of people and industries. Think about the tax incentives the Government can offer; think about start-ups and how Government can make it easier for them.
“Think about that culture of not tolerating failure: we need to turn it around and make it a badge of honour. And if you think about bankruptcy laws and how onerous they are in Ireland versus even the UK, there’s a long list of things that Government can fix from a policy point of view.
“Think about the technology industry and digital media, it has taken geography out of the equation because if you can imagine where you are in the world you can get involved in that business and all it requires is smart people.
“What creates smart people? A great education system and smart ideas. I would be optimistic that Ireland can garner its fair share of those 21st-century knowledge-economy industries. The challenge we face is creating an environment where the best and brightest look to those industries as their career paths.
“Creating the right incentives; creating the right visibility to the opportunities, the right role models even and making school a place where kids want to go, that’s the policy we should be looking at. And then you have to figure out what are the right incentives.
“Double points for maths is just one little sliver of the right incentive. But if it is not joined up with a lot of other things, it’s just one right incentive in the middle of a potentially not-so-great system.”
I ask O’Hara, as an Irishman employing thousands of people, what kind of Ireland does he believe could re-emerge from this recession? “Well, we are getting out of it. In recent times there were three hurdles this country had to jump over. One of them was Lisbon, thankfully we got over that and it’s behind us. The second one was the Budget and I think we made significant progress toward balancing the books. The third one was sorting out the banks. And you can argue about NAMA. Time will tell whether we have made the right choices but we made choices and we’re moving forward and that’s the most important thing.
“The multinationals will play a significant part well into the future for this country. But you’d be foolish to rely exclusively on the multinationals to be the main engines of employment.
“There’s a huge gap we have to fill in terms of the entrepreneurial sector. We’re in deficit mode in those areas. It’ll probably take 10–20 years to really build an indigenous business model in all its shapes and sizes and it will probably end up in places we haven’t envisaged.”
O’Hara says it is Government’s job to create the right environment entrepreneurs.
“We have no idea what disasters and what opportunities are around the corner, but we have to recognise some of the huge advantages and capabilities this country has relative to so many.
“The question I always ask people: ‘If you have the current situation in Ireland today and you wanted to trade it with somebody with better circumstances, who would you trade with? Would you trade it with Israel, with the US, with China?’
“When you ask that question it becomes a sobering thing because mostly, when I think about it, we’ve got a lot more going for ourselves in this country and I probably wouldn’t trade what we’ve got in its entirety for other places that we aspire to be like.
“We have to have a positive attitude; we have to build positivity into our society. We have to start having more confidence in ourselves, we have to have confidence in our leaders and we have to have a willingness to take on big challenges, make some sacrifices and go solve those things with a bet that says our young people are as good as any young people around the world.
“Our job now is to build an infrastructure that helps them and then get out of their way, affirms O’Hara.
To watch a video interview with Jim O’Hara, go to www.digital21.ie.
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