Thursday 23 November 2017

Thousands of companies search in vain to recruit qualified staff

Technology sector worst hit by skills deficit, while candidates with language skills at a premium

Picture posed. Thinkstock
Picture posed. Thinkstock
Picture posed. Thinkstock

SEAN Baker, the chairman of 3Strata Technologies, has a problem that many other companies dream of these days.

Despite 450,000 people on the dole, Baker cannot find enough employees for his successful Dublin companies which make a range of products such as computer applications for travel vaccines.

He's not alone. Despite the worst jobs crisis in two decades, thousands of companies are battling with skills shortages and are unable to find enough specialist workers.

"It really is a problem," says Baker. "Whenever senior people from technology companies get together, it doesn't take long before the conversation turns to labour shortages."

Baker, a 30-year veteran in the technology sector who helped found Iona Technologies and is now a part-time professor at UCD, says the sector has always been bedevilled by skills shortages but these problems seem to be getting worse despite the economic downturn and soaring unemployment.

The size of the problem can be seen from Department of Enterprise figures which show that the Department issued more than 8,000 work visas for employees from outside the European Union last year.

Tens of thousands of other jobs are being filled by citizens from the other 26 European Union member states.

The technology sector is worst hit by skills shortages but there are also shortages of scientists, chemists, nutrionists, lab analysts, designers, radiographers, linguists, sales people and energy experts, according to Tony Donohoe, head of education policy at IBEC.

Donohoe highlights the lack of sales people across the board, especially those able to sell in foreign languages. "It's one I'd hear quite a lot about," he says.

The multinationals have always needed linguists for their call centres but indigenous companies are also trying to bulk up their sales teams with German, Dutch and French speakers to sell Irish products overseas as the domestic market shrinks.

Paul Sweetman, who heads technology lobby group ICT Ireland, also sees the problems every day. In a survey of 60 technology companies last month, every single company reported problems hiring staff.

Almost two thirds of those polled said they were looking for up to 10 employees, a fifth were looking to fill between 10 and 50 jobs while almost a fifth were trying to hire more than 50 people.

Sweetman noted that technology companies have announced 2,200 new jobs so far this year after announcing 3,500 last year. "It's a very vibrant sector," he says.

"Demand in technology companies has been growing quite significantly. This isn't just an issue for Ireland; it is a problem for all global centres. Silicon Valley, the UK, Israel all have pressures."

To counter the skills shortages, ICT Ireland has been running courses along with companies such as Swedish mobile giant Ericsson and EMC which is running conversion courses for technology graduates in conjunction with the Cork Institute of Technology.

Jamie Cunningham of recruitment company Reed Global has the difficult job of finding candidates in this market. He says the shortages are limited to Dublin, Cork and a lesser degree, Galway.

While the number of people on the dole is high everywhere, it is often forgotten that the problem is unevenly spread throughout the country. Dublin has the lowest jobless rate with 12.5pc of all workers out of work while the South East has the highest rate at 17.2pc. The national average is 14.1pc.

Cunningham says employers desperately want computer graduate programmers especially those who can programme in languages such as Java, dot.net and PHP.

Wages are now between €250 and €500 a day for programmers with these skills which means it is now often cheaper for companies to hire people full-time although many programmers remain eager to work on individual projects rather than working for a company. "Recruitment is completely candidate driven at the moment," says Cunningham.

Like many others looking for talent, Cunningham says languages combined with a skill such as computing, customer care or sales almost guarantee a job for graduates.

"Most of our customers want English plus German, plus Dutch or plus a Scandinavian language," he says. "We're not just talking about tele-sales but also high level jobs with a good career path."

An ICT Ireland survey of Irish and foreign companies operating here shows that 75pc of companies use foreign languages on a daily basis.

"Traditionally we have seen a need for French and German," says ICT Ireland's Paul Sweetman. "But what companies are telling us now is that there will be strong demand for Russian, Arabic and Chinese."

Employers really want people who can speak languages and do something else. Sweetman speaks warmly of UCD's engineering department which makes first year students learn a language but he wants similar programmes for students of other subjects such as physics and chemistry as well.

In the longer term, he urges school pupils to "take the right subjects in school and then in university". As unemployment remains stubbornly high, it is advice that is likely to be listened to by many in the years ahead. "The future is technological, pursue it if you have an interest and competence," says IBEC's Donohoe.

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