It’s about time we added digital skills to all school curriculums, leaving no child behind.
Have we found a long-term solution to the Stem (science, technology, engineering, and maths) skills gap in Ireland? In short, no. But do we have some rather brilliant minds fighting to nourish the brilliant minds of the future? Yes, we do.
As far as ICT skills are concerned, we’re not much closer to closing the gap than we have been. A recent report by HRLocker, The Future of Work, shows IT still accounts for 15 per cent of the jobs posted through its talent acquisition tool, Hire, pipped only by sales and marketing.
Given that SMEs are trying to recover from the pandemic, it’s no surprise that salespeople and marketers are in high demand.
What is worth noting though is that engineers’ salaries have risen significantly in the last year. Some junior engineer positions start at €60,000 per annum and senior engineers can expect remuneration stretching into six-figure salaries.
With such great pay on offer, why are we not doing enough to prepare kids for this career path?
“I think a lot of the things that have been done have been patchy, and hit and miss. The approach hasn’t been systemic,” said Mary Cleary, secretary general of the Irish Computer Society.
“It needs to be built into the education system and we’ve got to start at primary level.”
Some schools are lucky to have teachers who champion digital skills or encourage pupils to get involved in the free competitions and programmes available to those with an interest in Stem subjects.
What about the pupils who don’t have these resources in school? They are being left behind. Digital skills need to be taught on a par with the three “R”s.
“We wouldn’t consider an education system at primary level without reading, writing and arithmetic; we’ve got to have the fourth one now which is digital skills because it’s a literacy skill,” Cleary said.
Adding digital skills to the curriculum from primary level would also open up the opportunities to transform the delivery of education in Ireland.
“It’s an absolute disgrace that we haven’t got an online exam at the moment,” Cleary said. “We’re not changing anything in the system; we’re just digitising the same old system and the same old methods.”
Kinia is one company providing kids from the ages of eight to 18 with the chance to test out their Stem skills through school or youth programmes.
Courses are delivered through both Irish and English, an important factor for the company as they try to reach all communities to provide equal opportunities for schoolchildren.
Socio-economic disadvantage is one of their priority areas, and they provide free courses to education facilities and youth centres whose members ordinarily can’t afford such programmes.
“The other area is the rural urban divide. Stem entrepreneurship is very heavily based in urban areas,” Marianne Checkley, chief executive of Kinia, said.
Over the last few years rural hubs have become the norm outside of large cities, and these are becoming embedded in the community. Kinia wants to make schoolchildren aware that they can now have a Stem career which might not necessarily take them away from their community.
“Young people can see opportunities for entrepreneurship in their communities, and to stay there and to build that up. We also support other groups that are under-represented, like the Traveller community and migrant communities,” Checkley said.
“There needs to be a really creative approach to learning and education, and this is why we work in both the formal and non-formal education system. There’s a real beauty in youth services and in what happens in non-formal learning environments.”
At third level, educators are also innovating in the delivery of education. An example of this is the way University of Limerick (UL) is upcycling up its learning environment.
The much talked about BSc/MSc Immersive Software Engineering will welcome its first students in September. Stripe’s Collison brothers are to be thanked for planting this particular acorn.
‘What innovations would you introduce into software engineering education to enhance the graduate pipeline with respect to quality and quantity?’ was their question.
A four-year masters programme with direct links to industry, was UL’s answer.
“In immersive software engineering, we have five residencies that collectively constitute approximately 50 per cent of the programme. They begin in year one and continue to year four,” JJ Collins, head of residencies and lecturer in software architecture and machine learning at UL, said.
The students will be working on real problems and developing solutions during each of their residencies. They will ‘learn by doing’, in a similar way to how students of medicine and teaching study their field.
“Everybody recognises that this is going to be one of the key innovations . . . a game changer. A number of residency partners are philanthropic donors contributing significantly to cover the gap between HEA funding and the actual cost of the programme itself,” Collins said.
“One of the asks, originally, was to promote a national conversation about the opportunities in software engineering, the career paths, how incredibly rewarding it is, and how it’s a qualification you can take anywhere in the world. And we are doing that.”
Continuing the conversation on the skills gap, the Dublin Tech Skills Forum 2022 will be covering this very topic on March 9 during an online event.
Hosted by TechIreland and Code Institute, there will be two panel discussions held during the lunchtime fixture: Disruptive Tech and Changing Skills Needs, and Irish Tech Recruitment in 2022 and beyond.
Panels of recruitment managers and industry leaders will discuss the current landscape and how best to build a future-ready road map to ensure we can keep up with the pace of changing technology.
“Whether you’re a multinational or a small SME, come and listen and understand how to hire a tech person. Or if you are having issues attracting a pipeline of tech talent, come and listen to what other people are doing to try and identify talent pools on the market place,” Jane Gormley, career services director at Code institute, said.