The only area of economic activity that promises real growth in the absence of an extensive manufacturing base in any of the world’s economies is technology. Fortunately, Ireland’s tech sector is extraordinarily well-placed to take advantage of the opportunities that are available. According to ICT Ireland, over 75,000 people are employed in the ICT area which is responsible for approximately 25% of Ireland’s total turnover and represents one third of Ireland’s exports by value. Employment alone has grown by 6% in this area this year and there is still the promise of more to come.
Michael Martin is manager of the Irish Software Innovation Network. One of ISIN’s main tasks is to act as a matchmaking service between university research institutes and business. As Michael explains, “We have a good history and a good base of knowledge in the [tech and software] areas and now we have to build on that in a fast-changing industry.
Just recently, Craig Barrett, ex-CEO of Intel, spoke about the need for closer ties between the public and private sector. How do you see the two fitting together?
“Technologies are changing all the time and it is difficult for smaller companies to keep up-to-date. On the other hand, we have this huge database of knowledge in our universities which have been well-funded for the last ten years and there is a great opportunity for these companies to tap into that, make use of that technology and get ahead of the competition.
“The challenge is to make companies aware of what is happening. And then to make sure that we can find the right match for that company.
“So, we got all the different software associations together. We looked at the issue from the point of view of: Can we help companies? Can we facilitate companies in posting information about jobs that are there to create more awareness in this area? How to get more students to pick [maths and science] as subjects – particularly with career guidance teachers to make them aware that this is an area that is doing very well. We are looking at ways to increase awareness of this area and facilitate companies to fill those jobs.”
So what are the challenges ahead?
“Over the last number of years there has been a lack of people and students going into the engineering subjects. Now there is a shortage. The numbers are way down in all these disciplines. The talent pool has shrunk in the last few years. The number of people doing the maths and science subjects are down. So it is difficult to get the good people with the good maths to go into computer science. Also, people are not moving in the present climate. They don’t want to start again somewhere new. If there are cutbacks they would be the first in line to go.
“If we don’t act now then in ten years time things will be worse than they are currently. It’s very important. There is the Champions Program which is organised by ICT Ireland and Engineers Ireland to get engineers to go out to schools with the good story about what is happening in the industry… To encourage and show pupils good examples of how people have been successful, and that makes it more attractive for people to do these courses.
“ICT Ireland has been lobbying for a large number of years. The CEOs and the multinationals really believe that it is very important for Ireland to keep that skills pool large. Over the last few years, people have gone into more secure places such as law and medicine and things like that, particularly the ones with good maths. We have to break that trend and keep that technical skills pool large because that is an advantage to Ireland.”
So what are the good examples we should be looking at?
Some of our institutes are recognised all over the world in the localisation services, the Semantic Web and the mobile communications area. Ireland has three of the leading institutes in the world.
- Semantic Web: Digital Enterprise Research Institute, NUI Galway.
- Localisation: CNGL, DCU/UL/Trinity College.
- Mobile, data-rich communications: TSSG, Waterford IT.
“A strength we have is problem solving and developing a solution. We do have a talent in this area. Irish people are very innovative and very good product developers.”
The temptation in the current economic and political climate is to take an exceptionalist view and assume that Ireland is somehow uniquely disadvantaged. But Ireland is only one of a great many countries facing difficult times. However, unlike many other places, it has a huge advantage in that the most important sector for growth a country can have, the tech sector, is growing. It deserves as much help as possible to grow as quickly as possible. Hopefully, one day in the near future people can say, “What’s good for Ireland is good for the world.”