Saturday 1 October 2016

Smart futures can roll out the science message

While information and communications technology is our best bet for the future, we need to convince Irish graduates to take this path

Barry O'Sullivan

Published 05/07/2015 | 02:30

In order to meet the challenge of boosting the numbers studying ICT courses, we need to tackle perceptions, says Barry O'Sullivan
In order to meet the challenge of boosting the numbers studying ICT courses, we need to tackle perceptions, says Barry O'Sullivan

As the economic recovery in Ireland continues to gather pace, it is vital that we take a long-term approach in order to ensure that this positive momentum is maintained.

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One of our key objectives in this regard should be to ensure that we are equipping students with the right skills to take advantage of the opportunities in growth areas such as technology and science.

Despite wave after wave of positive news about the ICT sector in Ireland - from the emergence of successful new Irish start-ups like Nearform to multinationals such as Google expanding their operations with new jobs being created every week - there are more opportunities than people available to fill them.

While there were 3,358 ICT graduates in 2014, this needs to increase to 5,390 in 2018. It has been reported that there are approximately 6,000 IT vacancies in Ireland at present.

When you combine this figure with the increase in graduates required by 2018, it is obvious that Ireland is not educating enough ICT graduates for the opportunities available. This problem isn't limited to the technology sector; there is also a need to boost the numbers studying science, engineering and maths courses at third level.

The question we need to ask ourselves is why enough of our young people are not choosing to study these courses and ultimately go on to work in relevant sectors.

A report by Amarach Research that surveyed over 2,000 Irish third-level students offers some interesting insights in this respect.

The research reveals that students' main concern when making their CAO choice is whether they will "fit in", ranking it higher than other factors like career prospects. When specifically asked about their perceptions of science, engineering, technology and maths courses, half of the students surveyed perceived them to be difficult and felt they require too many hours' commitment per week.

So it appears it's an image problem that's creating the barrier for students as opposed to a lack of job opportunities.

In order to meet the challenge of boosting the numbers studying these courses, we need to tackle this perception. It's not to say that studying a subject like engineering doesn't require rolling up your sleeves to get through four years of university.

But where students have succeeded in getting the required points in the Leaving Cert and have an interest in the area, we need to make sure these young people have the confidence to know that they can get through it and to sell them on the fantastic opportunities open to them when they graduate.

One of the best ways to overcome this barrier is to dispel the stereotypes about studying subjects such as computer science or electronic engineering. There is no better way to achieve this than by letting students hear first-hand from people working in diverse fields like cybersecurity or gaming.

We see this in practice with an initiative which I am involved in called Smart Futures - a collaboration between industry and government led by Science Foundation Ireland to encourage more people to pursue science and technology courses.

Here's how it works. Volunteers go into schools and tell students about their own experiences in terms of what they studied and how it lead them into the job they work in today.

Career advice and video case studies of volunteers are available on SmartFutures.ie. Teachers can also use the site to request a visit from a volunteer to give a career talk in their school. To date, over 50 companies have been involved in the initiative, but we need more organisations to come on board.

There is no point in companies simply highlighting the fact that the Irish education system is not producing enough graduates with the relevant qualifications. We know this already.

Our efforts therefore would be better spent becoming part of the solution. Industry has to be involved in tackling the problem and the best way to achieve that is through a coordinated approach.

Through the Smart Futures programme, we are providing free training to volunteers so they can have the confidence to go into schools and tell their story to students, thereby opening students up to the array of possibilities offered by science and engineering careers and letting them see that all different types of people pursue these careers.

There is a great story to tell in terms of the growth in these industries; the fulfilling, well-paid roles available with exciting companies such as Facebook or Airbnb; and the highly innovative projects helping to change the world for the better.

We need to make sure that students hear that story first hand and that we also talk to their main influencers like their parents and career guidance counsellors to make sure that they know the facts, rather than relying on stereotypes.

So I would urge anyone who may be talking to second-level students to make sure that they have the real picture of the opportunities out there and what it's really like to work in science and technology.

I would also encourage science, technology and engineering companies to get involved with the Smart Futures programme to help get the message to young people - we must remember that it is on these young people that future success depends.

To quote Steve Jobs - your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it.

If we can give Irish students a glimpse of the amazing work that people working in IT and engineering do every day across the country, then we will open up a world of opportunity for them.

For young people who want a career that is rewarding, gives them the opportunity to travel the world and the freedom to move between industries, they need to look no further than the world of technology and science.

Barry O'Sullivan is CEO of Altocloud, a Silicon Valley technology company which also has a base in Galway

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