15 March 2018 | 0
If there is one constant complaint from the IT sector in Ireland, it is that it has more jobs than it does skilled people to fill them and the problem is only getting worse.
Where IT companies once competed for specialised employees purely with other IT companies, now they are finding themselves competing with mainstream companies adopting technologies like data analytics, artificial intelligence and cloud resourcing as standard parts of their business.
Companies in retail, manufacturing and financial services are all looking for the same skilled staff as IT companies and the hard fact is that there just are not enough candidates to go around.
“The broad picture is that in general we have almost full employment here. It’s down to around 6% and we’ve got very few people looking for jobs in general. So unemployment is as low as it’s nearly ever been,” said Peter Cosgrove, director with CPL Resources.
This means that the skills shortage in Ireland has to be seen in context and part of the problem is that many of the roles out there are in areas that are too new to have a large number of people skilled in them.
“The challenge is that a lot of the jobs out there are for skillsets that probably didn’t exist five or 10 years ago, so the chances of finding people with lots of experience in them are non-existent. It’s not like HR, marketing or sales where the details change but the broad strokes remain the same,” he said.
At the same time as the market is oversaturated with jobs and there are not enough skilled people to do them, colleges are turning out graduates who started IT courses four years ago. This presents further issues.
Pace of change
“Technology moves quickly. The reality is by the time they come out, things might have moved on or changed. Despite this, there are some trends which started some time ago and are showing no signs of abating, such as the general move towards cloud-enabled IT provision,” said Cosgrove.
“Twenty years ago, a helpdesk guy sat in the corner of the office and fixed computers and while we still have that, there’s much less of it because so much IT is moving into the cloud. There’s less need for people sitting in your office.”
“The main areas where the demand exists are mobile, cyber-security, data analytics and development because so many people are looking for development of websites and apps and they’re looking for it done really, really quickly because things are moving so quickly.”
In addition, while technology used to be a self-contained sector that was mostly concerned with itself, the reality of business is that technology now bleeds into every other sector.
“Hotels are now competing with Airbnb and that’s technology. Taxis are competing with Uber, Hailo and Mytaxi and that’s technology too. The biggest publisher in the world is now Facebook. What we’re realising is that technology used to be one business but now it permeates every single business. Companies now need technology people to do nearly every part of their business whether it’s retail sales, marketing, HR or whatever.”
This is an angle that Carmel Somers, talent manager for IBM Ireland Lab, agrees with.
“There is no doubt that there is a skills gap in Ireland, but I think it means different things to different people. Right now, where I see the gaps are in what we consider to be growth areas like data science, security, cloud and design but depending on where you are as an organisation, that might be different for you,” she said.
“For example, if security is important to your business, or cloud, you may be able to find the skills you need. These aren’t new areas so we have been pumping out graduates with some of those skills for some time now. Likewise design is another area where colleges are actively producing graduates.”
But finding experienced people with qualifications in data science or artificial intelligence, that’s a different matter.
“If we look at data science it’s not just the IT sector that’s actually looking for those skills. Whether you’re a bank or an insurance company or a manufacturing business, everybody’s coming to the realisation that data is that next big thing that they have to conquer,” said Somers.
“Every industry is looking at the data they have and asking what insights can they get from it, so it’s not just the IT sector that’s competing for people with data experience. We can go a step further and say that technology is crossing sectors.”
This means that a growing number of companies want people not just with technology skills but also business skills that will allow them to understand and work with the needs of the company within its sector. This is an important point for people with an eye on career progression.
“More and more we’re going to see that happen and it will break down even further. Take security for example, where we’re seeing demand for people that have a background in regulation, be it government regulation or GDPR,” said Somers.
A big challenge for people at the start of their careers in the IT sector is knowing what to study. After all, three or four years is a long time in IT and by the time a student leaves college and starts looking for a job in the workforce, the subject they’re qualified in could be in far less demand than when they started.
“That’s a challenge for anybody who’s in college now or about to go into college in October next year. They have to ask ‘how much of this is actually going to be relevant four years down the road’ when they get out in 2022,” said Somers.
“The solution is to prepare yourself as well as you can. That means you need to read a lot and you have to watch where the industry is going. Watch where people like Forbes are saying this industry is going and try to predict what the jobs of the future are going to be? Right now, it seems obvious that they’re going to be in cloud, in security and in data,” she said.
So the advice is to pick an undergraduate IT programme that has elements of these disciplines married into it. If you can’t find one, Somers suggests picking a good undergraduate programme in computer science or engineering and then look into an organisation that will give you an internship in year three.
“For example, we run an internship programme called Extreme Blue for four months a year where we take in business and technology students and we give them a challenge. Last year for example, we actually engaged a client – FoodCloud — so students got a real-life project to work on using blockchain that meant something to a client who wanted to implement something at the end of it,” she said.
Some commentators on the skills issue in Ireland actually break the situation down into two distinct parts. The first is the commonly discussed skills gap – the gap that exists between demand and supply for standard jobs. This problem would be solved by the introduction of more people into the jobs pool.
But a second aspect of the situation is an actual skills shortage that exists because the jobs being created are too new for there to be college courses or enough people with on the job experience to do them.
“There’s a growing skills demand as the tech sector is thriving in Ireland and then there’s also a gap in terms of skills because of emerging new technologies and practices,” said Peter Davitt, chief executive officer of FIT.
“And really what we need to ask is how to develop an appropriate and comprehensive talent pipeline, along with the pillars of education and training provision to meet that opportunity.”
One way that the skills gap could be filled is by the provision of more people into the market with the right skills to do the jobs. But the problem is that doing a primary degree, then a masters and then getting industry experience takes a long time.
However, many of the jobs out there do not require this level of expertise.
“We’ve undertaken research in recent years, skills audits basically, where we go out to tech companies and canvas their opinions. We did it in 2012, in 2014 and we’re just concluding our most recent one for 2018 which we will be publishing at the end of March,” said Davitt.
“We’ve broken the tech sector down into sub-skillsets and disciplines, like cloud computing or cyber security or software development or platform administration. In October 2014 when Ireland was just coming out of recession, we identified over 12,500 vacancies in the tech sector. But when we analysed our findings and spoke to companies, we found that only 25% of those roles required high level degrees.”
“75% of them could be satisfied by appropriate level five and level six qualifications. That’s 7,000 jobs,” he said.
In September of 2017, FIT was awarded the position of national coordinator for a new technology apprenticeship at level six, opening up the possibility of allowing a lot more people enter the sector without the need for a higher degree.
“Up until quite recently in Ireland, apprenticeships were seen purely in terms of traditional trades but over the last two years there has been a strong aspiration by the government to initiate modern apprenticeships in area like technology, accounting, financial services, etcetera,” said Davitt.
FIT’s goal is to grow this programme from 250 people this year on a new tech apprenticeship to 1000 per annum by 2021.
“We need a different mantra about attracting people into the tech sector. If we say it’s purely for people with third level and higher degrees, we exclude a whole other population of individuals, many of whom have acquired skills and competencies in their career and who could be productive in the sector. We dissuade people from considering careers in the tech sector that might otherwise do so.”
According to Davitt, in addition to the demand that measurably exists for skilled professionals in the technology sector, there is a separate but related problem of a skills shortage that simultaneously exists. This gap has appeared as the pace of technological change has accelerated.
“We’ve found that between 2014 when we carried out our last skills audit and this year, 2018, Irish companies are reporting a 40% difference in terms of the technology they are looking for staff to work with. That’s how rapidly technology is evolving within the sector,” he said.
“The basic fundamentals may stay the same but there are new processes, practices and tools coming into play all the time. The reality of people in the marketplace looking to keep themselves as employable as possible is that whatever course of education and training that they undertake, they can’t relax on their laurels.”
The reality for many IT professionals is that the role that they interview for and take up in a company often changes over time. People who start out as network engineers or coders can find that their job evolves over time as new technology appears in the workplace and they’re expected to work with it.
“An individual might come in with one skill set or discipline but over time they evolve into other roles and within the organisation. They can end up quite a distance from their original certification or award,” said Davitt.
“This ability to remain flexible and open to retraining and upskilling is an important aspect of working in the IT sector. For example many of the companies that we work with want their staff to have business acumen, entrepreneurial skills, project management skills and intercommunication skills as much as technical skills.”
In essence, they’re looking for rounded individuals that have good ground knowledge in certain areas but also have the capacity to migrate into other disciplines and acquire other skillsets as the need arises.