Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation

Information and Communications Technology Skills: Discussion with Ministers

1:30 pm

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The discussion will be on recommendations contained in the joint committee's report entitled A Review of Information Communications Technology (ICT) Skills Demand in Ireland and on the skills mismatch between industry requirements and the courses provided by the third level sector. We had a useful meeting on this topic last week with all the third level sector representatives.

I welcome the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, and his officials and the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, and his officials. They are both welcome. I thank them for the giving of their time here today as I appreciate they have a busy schedule.

I will go through the short version of the privilege notice. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I invite the Minister, Deputy Bruton to make his opening remarks, followed by the Minister, Deputy Quinn, and members may ask questions thereafter.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Minister, Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation; Dublin North Central, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

As I have circulated a script, I will not go through it religiously. I welcome the report of the committee, and its publication is very timely and apt. The ICT sector is a source of significant competitive advantage and one of continuing opportunity for Ireland. We have focused on that, especially in our Action Plan for Jobs 2012, sections of which are devoted specifically to the opportunities in cloud computing, ICT generally and digital games. We also recognise that we are seeing increasingly the convergence of technologies, with ICT becoming a major factor in opportunities emerging in other sectors such as the pharmaceutical sector and so on. We have developed a very significant cluster in Ireland of IDA companies.

I have listed in the appendix some of the announcements in recent times. In total the sector has 82,000 employed. Of those, approximately 10,000 are from indigenous companies. Overall, the sector represents approximately 35% of exports and it is growing. There was 5% employment growth last year and we have every reason to be optimistic for the future in this sector. The development of the indigenous software sector is truly remarkable and, increasingly, as we seek to open up new markets, it is ICT software companies that are forging the way.

In terms of delivering our ambition for growth in the sector, the committee will understand that it takes a wide range of policy initiatives to develop what might be called a successful ecosystem for the development of ICT in all its dimensions. We are seeking in our work to deepen the involvement of multinationals in the economy, in particular attracting them to invest in their research and development capability in this country. We are building collaboration with the small and medium-sized enterprise sector, in particular through the technology centres that are jointly funded by the IDA and Enterprise Ireland and are located in the higher education institutes. There are connections into those. Through Science Foundation Ireland we are significantly investing approximately 40% of its total funding in building centres of excellence in the ICT area generally. We are trying to build an environment where start-ups in the ICT sector can get access to seed and venture capital.

We are building an environment that is supportive of the growth of this sector, but a key element of the overall strategy is one the committee has identified, namely, the availability of the necessary skills. There is a worldwide scarcity of skills in this area. This country remains No. 1 in the world rankings for skills availability. Despite the fact that we have identified skills shortages, this is an area where we retain high skills availability. In part, that is due to our domestic education policy and also to the policy in respect of work permits and the ability to bring people in to work successfully in the Irish environment.

We have done work on the skills gap. The expert group on future skills needs has identified a significant skills gap of which we must be conscious. It is at graduate level and involves ICT professionals with two to eight years’ experience and those with experience in excess of eight years. We must ensure companies that are growing can get access to the skills in those various categories. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, will go into considerable detail on the initiatives he is taking to develop the educational flow into the sector, but the education system cannot deliver straight away in terms of filling gaps where several years of experience are required, and there is a need for other policy instruments to fill the gap.

I have outlined also in the paper I circulated a number of initiatives that are funded by the Department that are across the entire area of promoting skills. They supplement the work done by the Minister of Education and Skills. The Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, plays a pivotal role between the two Departments in that he has responsibility for the research dimension in my Department but he also has an overall roving responsibility in respect of the development of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM. Initiatives are in place such as the discover science and engineering programme, which we fund, and smart futures. Science Foundation Ireland recently published its ambitious strategy up to 2020. Part of that is to increase the throughput of people who come through our research centres who get placed in industry. SFI is seeking to increase that from the 22% it was at in 2010 - it is now up to 30% - to 50% so that not only are we doing excellent research in those centres but also we are bringing people with excellence and experience into our companies.

Enterprise Ireland has taken an initiative, It’s Happening Here, which supports SMEs and indigenous companies which feel at something of a disadvantage in competing with the big brand names. By collaborating together they can deliver the message that exciting work is happening in the Irish IT sector that is challenging and attractive for people with skills.

The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, will go into the detail of the educational aspect where he has radically expanded the throughput, but there is also a need to supplement the skills we can develop ourselves. That is where the employment regime comes into play. We must recognise that because those skills are in short supply globally, we must develop a system of work permits that is responsive and allows employers who identify needs to fill them rapidly where those skills are justifiable. We have had a traditional work permit regime in this country. In the recession the use of work permits has declined dramatically because there is a higher level of unemployment, but we also recognise that people with ICT skills are pivotal. Research in the United States suggests that one such key person with experience has a knock-on effect on the employment of five people in the wider economy. We need people with pivotal skills to develop the sector successfully.

We have a considerable number of ICT applications getting through in our work permits regime. A total of 1,200 applications were granted in 2011 and only 6% were refused. Increasingly, one will see that the proportion of green cards and work permits issued are in the ICT area. In 2009 it was 31% of green cards issued, but to date in 2012, it is 63%. Increasingly, the type of people who are getting permits are those of high skill who are relevant to the development of the sector.

We also recognise that there is scope for considerable improvement in the work permits regime. Officials from the Department are present who have been working on streamlining the process. There is a lack of clear understanding among employers on how the system works. In addition, procedures that grew up over time are too bureaucratic. We believe we can dramatically reduce the processing time and have done so already. We can also make the system more user-friendly in order that, for example, green cards, which have traditionally been used for the employment of ICT professionals only in the ICT sector, could be extended to other sectors. The eligibility should be wider. We are ambitious to increase the supply. We reckon that by making the changes we propose, we should increase the work permits granted in 2013 by approximately 700. If members want details of the types of changes involved, we can go through them.

We also have new legislation on employment permits coming through. It is on the Government’s A list. I intend to bring it forward as soon as possible. That will give additional legal instruments to reform and improve the permits system further. We will have a robust scheme that will be highly competitive in this area.

It is clear we must balance the issue of permits with the provision of employment opportunities for Irish graduates. That is a balance we must strike in implementing the regime. The term used in the committee’s report is an "IT visa". Our system has been based on employers identifying vacancies and then having the freedom to recruit.

Under existing arrangements, companies being supported by IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland would have a much quicker route to getting permits processed. We know that many of the boxes that must be ticked have been ticked already as a result of the support of Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland.

The committee has raised the potential of an IT visa which would not be based on vacancies but would allow anyone with particular types of qualification to come to Ireland and search for a job here. That is what is commonly regarded as an IT visa. That is a different approach but we are exploring the merits of such a scheme. We are in discussion with the Department of Justice and Equality to examine ways in which our regimes could be improved to facilitate the hiring of overseas workers and the possibility of permitting highly skilled candidates to conduct job searches in Ireland in advance of applying for a work permit. That would empower prospective highly skilled employees to actively consider Ireland as a potential location for employment but we must be sure that does not become open to abuse. Careful consideration is required before we sign off on that more open-ended process which is not related to vacancies. One can understand the concern that someone who was employed in a sector that had nothing to do with the alleged specialism could come here presenting as an IT specialist. There are concerns in that regard that we would need to tease out.

This is a sector of immense opportunity for us. The committee has rightly identified it as an area in which, as a people, we must build our human capital, but we must also be willing to supplement that human capital through visas or work permits where appropriate. That is the policy we are adopting - namely, to take the two approaches simultaneously.

1:45 pm

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

As the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, stated, we have supplied the committee with a submission and I understand copies of my formal remarks have been circulated already. With the agreement of the Chairman and the committee, therefore, I propose to speak on the salient points to provide for more time for questions and answers.

I will begin by introducing my two colleagues. Ms Anne Forde from the higher education policy and skills section has responsibility for the ICT action plan, and Ms Breda Naughton is responsible for the national literacy and numeracy strategy and for the new framework for junior cycle reform.

Both the Minister, Deputy Bruton, and myself have been listening to the requirements from both employers in the Irish small and medium enterprise sector as well as from the multinationals. Representatives of multinationals are limited in what they can say because there is their own head office and sometimes they concentrate much of what they say on the education system. I offer that as an observation; members can use it as they choose. Listening to the employers, one would think that instant solutions could be found through the university system, but the path to third level education starts in kindergarten and in junior cycle. That is the reason I want to address the question of reform of the education system.

My colleague the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, is not present, but she would talk about the critical importance of preschool education for young people aged from three to six years of age or certainly up to six years of age. This country got a wake-up call in the autumn of 2009 - some members were on the education committee at the time - when we dropped from fifth place to 17th place in the PISA ranking of literacy, and there was a proportionate fall in regard to science. Everybody - including, I am happy to say, the then Minister and officials in the Department of Education and Science - said this was a problem. The scale of the drop probably overshot the reality on the ground but nevertheless it galvanised us to respond.

In terms of what we have done in the areas of literacy and numeracy - if we are talking about IT skills, these are the core building blocks - we have been complacent here for decades about the excellence of our education system, which we constantly asserted without reference by comparative means to other systems, although there is a long history to that. We have changed the curriculum within the Department for primary school education in terms of the allocation of time to ensure that more time is made available for literacy and numeracy. At the same time we have introduced and formalised a system of assessment which was already in place but is now standardised. We benchmark, assess and measure at the end of second class, fourth class and sixth class, and from the autumn of 2014 we will be doing that at the end of second year in the junior cycle. I will come back to that later.

We are putting a great deal of resources into getting continual professional development for teachers in this area. We have announced the change - it will take time for it to occur - in the configuration of the provision of initial teacher education in Ireland. Singapore, with a population of 5 million, has one college that deals with both primary and secondary school. Finland, the poster child of education, has eight such colleges and Ontario in Canada has 13. This lovely little country of ours has 19. The international expert group which the Higher Education Authority brought into operation surveyed the situation and has recommended changing the configuration of those 19 colleges into new clusters or amalgamations of six. In addition to that, the three-year course in education for primary school teachers will be extended to four years. Many of the additional quasi-academic, first-start degree-type qualifications, which had little or no relevance to the teaching of primary school children, are being stripped out and the focus is exclusively on pedagogic skills.

When somebody did an arts, science or commerce degree but always intended to go into second level education, he or she would do a H.Dip. The H.Dip qualifications varied in quality and value because the college was only one partner in the provision of the course, the other partner being the school to which the student was assigned. In some cases there was a looped cycle in which a student would leave school, go to college, do the H.Dip, come back to do his or her work experience during the H.Dip and, when he or she qualified, stay in that school. The life experience of such students was therefore somewhat limited, and that is the case across the country. That will now be a two-year cycle, as distinct from a one-year cycle, and it will be much more rigorously invigilated and examined, with the emphasis on teaching skills.

On the reason for the emphasis on teaching skills, every piece of international evidence demonstrates, regardless of the ideological starting point, that good teachers produce great results. Good teachers trump all other advantages or disadvantages. Having the most IT-powered school or a pupil-teacher ratio of 1:5 is of no use if a teacher is bad. It rests on the quality of the teachers, and in that regard we are very fortunate in this country.

I was in Brussels yesterday, where they were moaning about the need to attract people into the teaching profession, to pay them more to stay longer in school, etc. Currently, we have a nine-to-one application rate for primary teaching college places. Hibernia College has a strong demand for conversion courses from people in their mid- to late 20s. There are major structural changes in literacy and numeracy in education. Some of them we will see quickly; it will take time for others to be embedded, but we have to start the journey.

People have been talking about reforming the junior cycle for about ten years.

Ms Breda Naughton:

Even longer.

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

There were some attempts in that regard but they got stalled for different reasons. That is history. I was persuaded very much by the breadth and depth of the most recent comprehensive recommendations from the National Council for Curriculum Assessment, NCCA, which were discussed in the Seanad and in the Dáil, with positive contributions from the vast majority of people who spoke. The difficulty was how to free up the curriculum, remove from it the backwash effect of the leaving certificate and the race for points, and achieve the kind of character, personality and skills formation the curriculum aspires to. Within the Department, we were considering implementing the recommendations of the NCCA and came to the conclusion that the best way to do it would be to remove the sword of Damocles, which was the junior certificate State examination, at the end of third year.

From the beginning of September in third year one was preparing for the examination which was seen as a dress rehearsal for the leaving certificate examination. The simple, radical decision recommended to me, about which I thought for some time and for which I opted, was based on the fact that countries and regions, the educational output and achievements of which we admire, such as Finland, Scotland, New Zealand and Queensland in Australia had no high stakes state examination at the age of 15 years. It is not considered desirable for children to leave school at that age and, therefore, it is believed they should not need a state examination reference at that point.

The approach open to us was to remove the State examination. I will refer to the examination system we are putting in its place. Children will leave primary school and make the difficult transition to first year, at the end of which they will make their choice of subjects. They will choose a minimum of eight and a maximum of ten, on which they will undergo an examination at the end of third year. The assessment will be in two parts. Some 40% of the marks will be awarded for project work in second and third years, with 60% being awarded in the examination. There will be transitional arrangements. In the first instance, the State Examinations Commission will set the examination papers' questions, but students will be assessed in third year in the same way that students are assessed in second year, that is, by their schoolteacher.

The two components will have two other legs attached such that at the end of third year - around September, as is customary - parents will get the total result. Parents will get the results of the two parts. The examination papers are to be marked by the teachers, as examination papers would be marked at the end of fifth year. Results will be obtained in the last of the literacy and numeracy tests from second year. These will complement the primary school tests in second, fourth and sixth classes. It will be a much more clinical assessment of ability and the period in question will come very close to the PISA period. At 15 years of age, on average, one will take the PISA examination.

The fourth and final component of the comprehensive assessment concerns all of the non-classroom-related facts a teacher will tell a parent about his or her son or daughter. It will concern the child's personality and his or her interpersonal, musical, performance, sports and debating abilities. I refer to all of the qualities which together make up a young emerging adult. Employers keep telling us they want staff who can stand up and make a presentation, work in a group and do all the tasks that are now characteristic of the modern workplace. We have moved far from the Fordist concept of one being an assembler of widgets on a moving conveyor belt that involves human interaction only at tea break.

Consider the question of when this proposal will be implemented. I am very conscious of the interference in the education system in Britain and the short-termism of political parties, including the Labour Party and the current Tory Government. We cannot turn this line around very quickly; we must have the confidence of the people thereon and bring the teaching community with us. We must maintain the trust of the parents. In Ireland, where we have undermined trust in so many institutions, there is still 100% trust in the integrity of the examinations. I am very conscious of this and have discussed the matter with Cabinet colleagues, as the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation will testify. We want to move slowly. The first cohort to start the new junior cycle will enter second level in September 2014, but it will be 2017 before they experience the new examination structure for English. In the remaining three years, to 2020, the balance of the curriculum will be rolled out.

For the first time ever in our history, both pre-independence and post-independence history, we will be inviting schools to start to devise term one for the ten subjects, creating two short courses. The courses should reflect the students' community, be it an agricultural community, a fishing community in north-west Mayo or a community in an inner-city area. A course could be devised that resonates with the life experience and daily experience of students. The NCCA is already providing a menu of short courses - I believe there are seven - but we will open up the path whereby a local community can, if it wants, devise a course that is relevant to the reality of its school.

Mr. Tony Donohoe of IBEC may very well engage with members. At an IBEC function last week I invited businesses, particularly small and predominantly Irish ones rather than large multinationals, to consider the concept of embracing a local school, not just by way of giving money for a piece of equipment but by having a structured system of embracement. When children pass by an industrial estate on their way to school, all they see are the security guards. Why does a local company not have an open day for first year students? In first year the pupil is adjusting to a new life and is a young adult. As in a game of snakes and ladders, the first year student goes to the bottom of the pile and is surrounded by adults in sixth year. First year students, when they were in sixth class, were surrounded by tiny tots in junior infants.

In second year, company staff should be sent to the school to describe their jobs, skills, the subjects they utilise, the subjects they did in school, what they learned and did not learn and the subjects they would do again. This would build a structured relationship that would facilitate pupils in seeking work experience in transition year. In many parts of the country the work experience placement is totally informal and depends utterly on whom one knows and the access one has to a range of employers. This does not work for most people, particularly those who need work experience the most. IBEC is happy about my proposal and will explore it, as is Mr. Clive Byrne, the director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals. I refer to second level schools, not primary schools, as the latter involve a different relationship. The idea would not be appropriate for primary schools. There are 723 post-primary schools. Heaven knows how many businesses there are. In typical towns in the middle of County Meath or Ballina, where there may be three or four significant employers that engage significantly in the community, we should start to explore my proposal which resonates a little with the German approach to vocational education. There are approximately 250 recognised apprenticeship trades and an automatic assumption that one moves in and out of a working world.

The final point relates to third level. Former Minister Batt O'Keeffe asked Dr. Colin Hunt to carry out a major review of third level education, which resulted in the Hunt report. The landscape document was analysed by the Higher Education Authority which invited all third level institutions, which total more than 30, to envisage their position in a new landscape for third level education. Last week or the week before the committee heard presentations by representatives of the institutes of technology. There are seven universities plus the DIT, 14 institutes of technology and a number of other colleges within the CAO system. The system is not owned or run by the State. It is crowd control for the registrars of universities, as it was rather inelegantly described by one commentator. The organisation has allowed all of the non-university colleges to participate but on its terms and conditions. The allocation of points according to leaving certificate results is carried out entirely by the CAO which is owned by the seven universities.

There was a criticism of the impact of the points system on second level education. I will return to this issue before I finish my outline of the position in respect of the third level education system. I was asked whether, if we started from scratch, today's configuration would be the result. There are eight universities - the DIT is de factoa university - and 14 institutes of technology. When the regional technical colleges were established following the investment in education by the OECD, transportation, communications and information technology were a pale shadow of what they are today. We certainly would not set up 14 institutes of technology today, given access, movement and transport considerations.

The institutions have been asked to consider their future direction. As all of this information is available, I will not take up time describing it, but members who are interested may check the record.

However, we are asking third level institutions, on a pragmatic and practical basis and having regard to the reality of getting people to work and collaborate together, to examine how best they can cluster on a regional basis and how best they can complement one another's array of services and courses offered to the learning community at third level. This is with a view to getting synergies and amalgamations in some cases, as well as getting an elimination of duplication or of having undergraduate courses in two institutions but having the postgraduate course in a single institution.

Moreover, it is with a view to setting up ways in which there is a better sharing of information across the system. For example, I spoke of the 19 locations in which one can pursue initial teacher education and although we are not entirely sure, we think there are approximately 40 different courses in engineering in the Irish system. Another example is the question of whether three business schools are needed in Dublin or whether the business schools can complement one another and have specialisation within a confederation of three business schools or whatever. One lesson we all know from the 1960s is that forced amalgamations do not work in any kind of organisation. Consequently, I am trying to encourage, from a bottom-up perspective, colleges to come together, to share resources and to co-operate with one another. That is the carrot but ultimately, the stick is the national cheque-book for third level financing. I hope that by this time next year, I will be looking at the structured response from the institutions and the Higher Education Authority's response to that offering and that the Department will be making recommendations or encouraging proposals in that area.

This brings me to the end of what I wished to say. This is the long road to the kind of educational space in which we must be to have the workforce we require. However, this does not meet today's labour market needs or shortages and I refer to the demand worldwide for information communications and technology, ICT, skills. I believe the Minister, Deputy Bruton, may have indicated to the joint committee on another occasion that there is a worldwide shortage. There are 5 million job opportunities within the European Union for people with ICT skills. In response to the crisis in the construction sector, we have provided, through the ICT conversion programme, 5,000 places in respect of ICT upskilling. For example, Springboard, which is one programme that has been mobilised, has a participation rate whereby 65% of the participants have honours degrees in their primary discipline. Typically, this may involve a quantity surveyor with those numeracy skills moving sideways from the construction sector into ICT skills that can be redeployed. I can provide the joint committee with details on how this has been working. However, what is of critical importance to those who participate is that the placement rate, once they have re-equipped themselves, is extremely high. In a nutshell, that essentially is the present position in respect of education. I apologise if my contribution was somewhat longer but the picture is deeper.

2:05 pm

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister for his contribution. I was conscious of the time in the case of both contributions but it was worthwhile listening to both Ministers, as it feeds nicely into what the joint committee is doing. While doing so has left us short of time for questions, members can get written replies to questions if need be. However, I appreciate that the contributions today from both Ministers were highly informative. I will take all questions now and am conscious the Ministers must leave at 3.15 p.m. If any questions have not been answered by then, perhaps members will be furnished with written replies to feed into their studies. In short, the report Senator Clune has undertaken on behalf of the committee is like a rolling report that will be updated every couple of months. In essence, the committee is engaged in continuous assessment, with which the Minister agrees in respect of education. We will begin with Deputy Calleary, followed by Deputy Tóibín and then Senator Clune.

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank both Ministers for the comprehensive presentations and on behalf of all members of the joint committee, I put on record their thanks to Senator Clune for the work she has undertaken. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, mentioned the word "improvements" in respect of the visa system seven or eight times but left it dangling there without giving members an idea of what they might be. He might provide members with a suggestion in that regard or perhaps this is a subject he probably wishes to deal with in written form. Second, the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation is in discussions with the Department of Justice and Equality on the subject of IT visas. Is there a timeline or deadline for those discussions? The Minister, Deputy Bruton, has referred to Commissioner Andor's figures that 700,000 ICT jobs would be available by 2015 and that the forecast shortage of IT practitioners by then will be up to 384,000. Is this an issue Ireland will prioritise during its forthcoming Presidency of the European Union, given the importance of ICT professionals to both Ireland and Europe? Perhaps shared initiatives could be conducted on a Community-wide basis and is this a matter to which the Minister has given consideration? Finally, in the appendix to the Minister's presentation, he outlined that just over 2,000 jobs have been announced this year but I note the PayPal jobs are not included. Is this simply a mistake? Were they to be added, that would be 3,000 jobs. How many of the aforementioned jobs will be filled this year? How many will be filled from within the jurisdiction and how many must leave the jurisdiction?

I have a couple of questions for the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn. The benchmarking exercises at second, fourth and sixth classes are very important in respect of numeracy and literacy. If something is picked up at second class or at fourth class level, it can be dealt with within the school. However, what happens at sixth class? When such a pupil leaves primary school to go to secondary school, does he or she get abandoned or is there a follow-through? I acknowledge the Minister intends to follow through in the second year of secondary school but that will have been two years later. Is there a risk that such students may get lost? Second, does literacy pertain to traditional literacy, the English language, or will we be ambitious and consider IT literacy? Will consideration be given to initiatives such as CoderDojo or the new languages our children must get into?

As for junior cycle reform, this is the first time I have had the chance to hear the detail. I believe the Minister needs to hit the road nationwide in this regard, as there is a complete lack of understanding. The only discussion one will hear about junior cycle reform concerns the abolition of the examination. Those of us who did the examination probably think those who will not be obliged to sit it will be getting away easy, but the proposals contain some interesting and exciting things. As a general observation, this must be communicated, especially to parents, who are only hearing one version of what this looks like. I was excited by the prospect of locally-designed short courses, which sound interesting. The Minister indicated there was a menu of seven such courses and perhaps he could provide members with the aforementioned menu. He also mentioned visits to industrial estates and activities that are already happening to a certain extent. I ask that efforts be made to engage with real business practitioners as well. I worked for a business organisation and rather than simply dealing with organisations, one must try to engage with real practitioners in the design of such courses, for them to be meaningful and not what one perhaps reads about in textbooks and so on.

The institutes of technology and all the third level institutions appeared before the joint committee last week and the institute of technology sector is doing some phenomenal work. In my judgment, it has been far more responsive to the events of the last four years then has any other sector in third level education. However, to give the Minister an idea, the joint committee asked all the third level representatives how many places they were offering on courses pertaining to construction today, as opposed to in 2008, but members were unable to get an accurate figure. While one would have assumed there had been a big drop, which had been replaced by IT, some work needs to be done in this regard.

Finally, the Minister, Deputy Quinn, noted it has taken ten years even to get to the present position in respect of junior cycle reform and that it would be a further eight years before it is fully embedded in the system. What changes will be made within the Department to ensure it will not be necessary to repeat this exercise and that the system can evolve to match the way in which the world changes as rapidly as is the case at present? Can the Minister leave in place some form of system that measures and delivers change as quickly as the world is changing?

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Gabhaim buíochas as an cur i láthair inniu. My first couple of questions are for the Minister, Deputy Bruton. I applaud all the good work that is being done with regard to ICT development in this State, which obviously is one of those demand-led developments internationally. I have a worry that when people discuss jobs in general, they often focus on the ICT sector very quickly and it is important to recognise that the proportion of the whole, that is, of all jobs in the State, made up by ICT is approximately 4.6%. It is the second smallest sector in the State and while one must recognise the creation of a single job is a positive development, I believe one sometimes can get distracted by the shining light of ICT from the rest of the gloom with the result that one focuses in on a very small sector to the detriment of other sectors that would breathe more life into resolving the major jobs crisis we face at present. I seek an understanding of what role the Minister expects ICT to play within the general economy. Can he provide members with an understanding of what are his objectives for job creation in ICT in general?

Some 10,000 jobs have been created since 2007 in that area. What is the objective regarding ICT creation this year, next year and to the end of this Government's period in office?

The infrastructure necessary for developing ICT, such as broadband technology and education, is very unevenly distributed throughout the State. In talking about ICT we are ruling out probably 70% of the country because people in those areas do not have broadband to access the miracle words such as cloud computing. Outside the four major cities in this State it will be very hard for any of this to have meaning for the rest of the economy.

I applaud the advantages taken for these areas, but we are seeking an even delivery if possible. Over the next four years, the Government plans a 50% coverage of high-speed broadband but in the Northern of Ireland the figure is 95%.

I also have a question for the Department of Education and Skills. There is a major opportunity at the moment in terms of outreach to schools and local companies. LEOs are currently being developed by the office of the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton. I would like to see every provincial LEO have an outreach function with a third level institution. In that way, third level students would be working with LEOs and local businesses. It would be for their benefit but also business is attracted to where third level institutions are functioning. That would give it a much broader footprint that it currently has.

We often look at the labour market in this State as literally being the 26 counties, but everybody knows that labour travels throughout the whole 32 counties. We strategically plan on a 26-county basis and implement at that level. Given that the labour market is so mobile, however, what can be done to plan strategically from all third level institutions on the island of Ireland and implement from there as well?

2:15 pm

Photo of Deirdre CluneDeirdre Clune (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Ministers for their contributions today. This committee is examining the area of ICT and other skills. Witnesses have told us of their experiences, particularly in industry, in assessing relevant skills. We have looked at what the Higher Education Authority is offering as well as both Departments represented here. ICT skills have been highlighted in the media and they come up repeatedly. I commend the Government on the ICT action plan. The response we have had from industry, both the indigenous and international sectors, has been very positive. We look forward to the first conversion output early next year.

The wording may not have been correct but we did not intend that somebody would get a visa to come here and look for a job. The intention of the committee's report was for it to be job specific. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, has outlined his thinking in this area, including the fact that one job created at a higher level can create up to five jobs in the economy, be they IT graduates or from outside the IT area. We found that the IDA seems to have a fast track if needed, but that was not the case with indigenous companies which did not seem to have that access and there was a timescale involved.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Quinn, for his contribution. I wish him well with the literacy and numeracy changes, particularly in project maths. They will be very relevant as students transfer to third level.

The committee has followed the various reports of the expert group on future skills needs. That group has spoken to us about difficulties with languages and we have all read the headlines regarding PayPal in this respect. The expert group on future skills recommended the establishment of a foreign language education policy across all education sectors. I wonder how that fits with the Department of Education and Skills. We also found that there should be continual dialogue on developing skills needs, given the overarching interaction between education and industry.

Photo of John LyonsJohn Lyons (Dublin North West, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I spoke last week on the junior cycle reform and I appreciate the concept of what is happening there. It is a long-term project, as the Minister pointed out but, given the sense of urgency, what are we doing about it right now? I am conscious that a lot is being done but I want to make one plug for FIT, the fast track to IT training programme, which does not always get the credit it deserves. Senator Clune mentioned the work of FIT in her report on ICT skills. It is about upskilling people from a wide range of backgrounds and not just those who have a third level degree and need a conversion course. FIT's track record speaks for itself. I checked its website and found that the European Commission recently cited FIT as one of the most effective employability initiatives in Europe. FIT has a strong collaboration with the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Social Protection. If everybody else is talking about it, as we are, can we look at doing more of that if at all possible? The elephant in the room is money but this industry-led, not-for-profit company has all the businesses represented on its board. FIT has its finger on the pulse of what industry needs and can upskill people to create jobs for existing vacancies. We need a lot more of that. FIT has a strong and proven track record in this regard. We must do as much as we can to continue the work of FIT and other such bodies.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I found both Ministers' contributions very interesting. Large employers get a lot of publicity when somebody goes over to the United States and brings back an employer who provides hundreds of jobs. Small start-ups, however, do not seem to get anything like the same amount of publicity, yet there are hundreds of them. In addition, every large business started as a small one. Could we have a view as to whether entrepreneurship can be taught and developed? I have spoken before about going down to Kerry and meeting Mr. Jerry Kennelly who has set up an organisation so that 600 transition year students can be taught entrepreneurship. Mr. Kennelly taught the teachers how to develop that subject. That is an important element for both Ministers, Deputy Bruton and Deputy Quinn.

Senator Clune mentioned the role of modern international languages. Some time ago, I visited Google and could not get over the amount of languages that were being spoken there. Why are we at the very bottom of the pile in speaking another European language or an Asian language? Is the allocation of so much time to teaching Gaeilge a hindrance to developing international languages?

Over the weekend, I was at the University of Sterling in Scotland and was impressed watching 800 graduates there and the variety of their degrees. I met the professor of aquaculture there. They are doing that subject because they can see the opportunities in developing the seafood industry. They seem to be responding to the market very well. I was interested to hear the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, refer to Scotland as one of those countries to be admired.

For a long time, we all believed that jobs would come from services and not from manufacturing, which would go to low-cost areas such as China and Eastern Europe. Is there a possibility that we took the wrong decision there? Very few countries have succeeded unless they are developing a manufacturing business, rather than concentrating entirely on services.

2:25 pm

Photo of Michael ConaghanMichael Conaghan (Dublin South Central, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

In the past, planning for future skills necessary to the economy was an easy task. When government invested in skills in the past, it got a lifetime of use out of that skill set. However, it has all changed and the pendulum has swung in the other direction. To determine the provision of skills in five years' time is almost a guessing game, such is the fickle nature of this area.

We should pay more attention to generic skills as a base skill set for a constantly changing economic landscape and the skills demands this makes. Personal creativity is one of these generic skill sets. One cannot teach creativity but people can discover it. The best place for self-discovery is in the classroom. In this country, we pay far too little attention to creativity. We completely neglect the subjects whose source and heart is creativity. One third of the primary school curriculum is supposed to be about creativity, such as dance, drama, mime, etc, yet we have the most haphazard arrangement for imparting these to young people. The Minister took the straitjacket off the second level sector and allowed for the flexibility to have new learning experiences and formats. However, I was disappointed there was little mention of the arts. The only way self-discovery can happen is through the arts. Creativity and generic skills should work more closely together. What are the Minister's thoughts on this?

Senator Mary M White:

I thank both Ministers for their excellent presentations and the passion with which they are addressing their portfolios. While English is the most spoken language in the world, students in Europe learn two languages, their national language and English. We all know we are appalling at having a second language. For all the time spent learning Irish in schools, very few second level graduates can speak it. While I accept it is a political issue, has the Minister for Education and Skills addressed this?

Graduate conversion courses provide an excellent opportunity for the filling of ICT, information and communication technology, vacancies. We note that applications were well in excess of the 768 places available. Has the Minister considered how he could give more opportunities to avail of this course? Has he any initiative to boost the available places in response to this demand, while mindful of the need to maintain quality in the programmes?

The national target is to double the number of ICT graduates to 2,000 per annum. What is the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation's contribution to meet this target?

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Minister for Education and Skills has proposed to develop a technological university for the south east. We need joined-up thinking on this between his Department and the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation whose Minister chairs the unemployment forum for the south east. If the region gets a technological university, it has to be about job creation. That comes back to Deputy Tóibín's earlier question to the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. What type of and how many jobs are we looking to create in this area? How can policy be joined up between the two Departments? How can we deal with the concentration of tech jobs in Dublin, Cork and Galway and ensure they are spread more evenly between the regions?

Last week we had several presentations from the third and fourth level education sectors. They made observations on the all-Ireland nature of this area. First, there is not a level playing field for A-level students from the North. The maximum number of points they can get through their A-levels is 450 which is prohibits them availing of courses in the South. In the North, ICT skills are a module at GCSE, general certificate of secondary education, level. We would need a similar module at second level, if not at primary level, in this State.

How do the long-term unemployed fit into this? Structural unemployment has been seen by the Government as a priority issue. We have many unemployed aged between 30 and 50 years who came out of construction or manufacturing. Where do they sit in this policy of creating new jobs and opportunities?

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Minister, Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation; Dublin North Central, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

With regard to Deputy Calleary's question on visas, we will be looking at the number of rules that are involved and the time durations of labour market needs tests. We have simplified procedures and should be able to reduce significantly the time and complexity involved in granting visas. We have legislation coming through in this regard.

We will use the Presidency to highlight the opportunities in this sector and have scheduled it into our programme. It is difficult to give an exact figure for the number of jobs that will be filled in this sector by domestic and foreign workers. Currently, 15% of those employed in the technology area are non-Irish and little over half of that figure are non-EU nationals. Obviously, a higher proportion of new vacancies are being filled by non-Irish nationals than the existing threshold but we do not have an exact figure. With 1,200 non-EU nationals coming into this sector, one could make a stab at the percentage. We do not have an accurate number for the churn either, however.

Deputy Tóibín asked for the targets for this sector. For internationally traded services, we have a target of 30,000 additional net jobs. This would include financial services. I will check to see if there is a disaggregated target for ICT. I do not believe there is a specific figure which has been published but it would be regarded as a significant sectoral opportunity.

Deputy Tóibín makes a valid point about the broadband strategy. As he will be aware, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, has published a broadband strategy which sets targets but it is clearly an important factor in accessing the opportunities.

Senator Clune made the point of the experience of employers. We have looked at some of the experience of employers who have come to our attention and sometimes they simply made the wrong application - they should have been applying for a green card but instead applied for a permit. We need to better inform people. Enterprise Ireland, EI, does have the same facility but perhaps there is not the same frequency of use of it and as a result maybe it is not running as smoothly. We would consider that there can be trusted partners in EI just as there are in IDA Ireland, and that we know that they are valid.

The FIT initiative, as I understand it, is probably not at level 8 plus where these high-level vacancies are, but it is an important programme which we recognise. It is probably not in the key skills shortage areas.

As to whether entrepreneurship be taught, I would say academics would write theses on that subject. Clearly, we want to promote it. Our reforms of the enterprise boards, integrating them into the Enterprise Ireland programmes for entrepreneurship and development, are part of our belief that we can grow more successfully and we need an indigenous engine of growth.

Manufacturing revival is very much on the cards. It must be core to our strategy. We will publish a strategy in that area within the next month or so.

Deputy Conaghan raised the issue about routine and non-routine and creative work. There are books written on this. Those who are in non-routine work and are creative are the big winners in terms of their earning capacity. There is a significant challenge, as the Deputy correctly stated, to create something unique out of whatever job one is in. The literature would state that those doing routine tasks, if they are creative, can make their position unique. I would not disagree with anything the Deputy said.

In response to Senator White, I outlined in my speech that we do a great deal in the area of promotion, including our SFI programmes, the discover science and technology programmes funded from my Department. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, will also recognise that the success of some of the conversion programmes has been in industry plugging in to the education sector. There have been collaborations, not only between Departments but between industry with institutes of education, which has been key to the success of those conversion programmes. Senator Cullinane also raised this issue of the job potential of this area.

2:35 pm

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I will try to be succinct and to the point. If there are any gaps, members should feel free to come back to us on them.

There will be something called an education passport at the end of sixth class and one will apply to go to a second-level school. When one is accepted, and only then, the school can ask to see one's grades and where one was. The education passport will inform the parents. The principal of the post-primary school will be able automatically to get it from the principal of the relevant primary school - data protection provisions will not apply. That will enable a teacher of geography to know, for example, that Ruairí Quinn has a literacy or numeracy problem, etc., and it will not take until Easter to work out, through the 30 children in the class, who are the strong ones and who are the weak ones. In fact, it is the group in the middle, the under-the-radar group, who get by because they do not stick out. The weak ones and the bright ones do. The purpose of this approach is to make the transfer seamless.

On computer literacy, the children need to teach us computer literacy rather than the other way round. Where would one start? I saw it at a family gathering in August where an 18-month old grand-niece picked up an electronic device and was swiping the front of it and shaking it to see if it would work. That is a big debate, much longer than time permits here. The children are coming in computer literate and the format is converging into an iPhone-Galaxy type format with everything else in it.

On a road show for the junior cycle we sent a document to all of the members some time ago. We all get so much to read, it is not possible to attend to it all. It is an interesting observation, given the reaction to it. There are short courses prepared by the NCCA that are available, and then we will be working with communities that want to develop a short course.

The number of construction places has dropped by approximately 50% within the institutes of technology sector since 2008. On the future evolution post the NCCA, I do not think there will be the stasis that there was for ten years when conservative forces within the education system merely put a block on reform. What will now have to happen, and will happen quickly, is a questioning of what happens to the transition year. We hope to get many of the attributes in those three years and transition year is something that we must consider in the next year or so.

There is nothing wrong with the leaving certificate curriculum according to professional educators. The difficulty is the impact of the points system, which is the function of the CAO. There are 14 points in the spectrum and one is never further away than 2.5% from one grade or another, and it is too rigid. We can change that, reducing it to approximately seven. Also, there has been the predictability in the questions that come up. If one wants to look at that in some detail, there is a website with a paper by Professor Áine Hyland, at transition.ie, in which she describes the way in which the admissions policy has distorted student behaviour resulting in a backlash on the leaving certificate, and, in turn, the junior certificate.

On the two questions Deputy Tóibín raised, we want to get the clustering of local enterprise offices close to the campuses, particularly those of the institutes of technology. A mission of the institutes of technology was to be as close to industry as is possible, to help that to develop, and to upskill the entire enterprise culture in the area and also provide education and training for their graduates. There has been some drift among some of them in recent years and they are now refocusing. The Hunt report recommends the maintenance of that strong dedicated technological sector which is what the institutes of technology are about.

All-island utilisation of third-level infrastructure makes common sense - Dundalk to Newry, Letterkenny to Derry, the New University of Ulster and Sligo - because of the configuration of the Border. It makes sense geographically to have east-west and North-South collaboration and we are exploring that.

On the question of foreign languages raised by a number of members, there are nine applicants for every teacher training place in primary school education colleges, most of whom come from within the top 15% of leaving certificate students. It is a cohort that most other systems in the European Union would die for. Most of those applicants will have a language qualification. Of the total of 54,000 who sit the leaving certificate, approximately 30,000 would have a modern language - predominantly French, then German and then Spanish. It would be my intention down the road that we would get those primary school teachers who would have taken a modern language in larger schools because this is another issue, to be able to teach a foreign language if that is what is wanted.

The foreign languages initiative was not considered successful. There was much noise around the system when I decided to take it out and to reallocate the funding within the Department for the improvements in primary school education. The NCCA did not recommend that this pilot scheme be made mainstream but it is something to which we must return.

The space displacement and the merits-demerits of Gaeilge and learning a second language is a big topic for discussion. The Secretary General made a major speech last week in Galway. He is a Gaelgeoir with a masters degree in Irish from Trinity College and is well equipped to discuss the matter. It is something on which there is no position in the programme for Government. We must look at the issue.

As an instrument for commerce, what PayPal has not stated to many publicly is that it was looking for native speakers in Dundalk, that Dundalk Institute of Technology went to PayPal asking was there any way it could help, and PayPal replied that there was not.

If one is speaking Latvian on a helpline with somebody in Riga, one does not need to be struggling with a Dublin accent. The person on the other end needs to understand the conversation clearly and properly.

There is a certain misunderstanding in regard to languages. Companies such as Google will recruit native speakers out of choice to provide that kind of service. I think we need a larger cohort of people studying languages but the focus has to be on ability to speak rather than a grammatical obsession with the modh coinníollach. The census revealed that 12% of the Irish population are foreigners, many of whom are first generation. Last Friday I took a group of people from the Chinese embassy on a tour of Leinster House. The five translators on whom we relied were their children, who were attending school in Ireland. It was wonderful to see them conversing comfortably with their parents and older members of the group.

I am not sure entrepreneurial skills can be taught in the same way as, for example, history. It is a question of teaching by demonstration. It is certainly one of the attributes we will set out in the 24 skills we are seeking to encourage but entrepreneurship takes many forms and manifestations. Can one, for example, teach swimming from a book without getting wet? Can one learn to ride a bicycle from a book? I do not think one can. If one equates books and teaching, certain attributes like cycling, swimming or entrepreneurship are more on the experiential side. The task is to replicate the experience, which is why forming companies and banks during transition year is the way to proceed. It is a different kind of learned experience to the traditional subjects like trigonometry and algebra.

On FIT, we have increased expenditure with FÁS from just under €500,000 in 2006 to almost €950,000 in 2012. The programme has proven very successful, although we want to do more between my Department and the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to address the immediate needs of industry. Senator Cullinane spoke about the focus on the unemployed. The target group for these programmes are the long-term unemployed, with 60% of participants coming from this cohort and 70% being aged between 25 and 49 years.

Manufacturing never left Germany but we are speaking about a very sophisticated form of manufacturing. This morning I attended a breakfast briefing with a company which came to Cork as an IT manufacturing company. Over time it transferred much of its fabrication out of the Cork area because the branch has expanded into the area of software. However, the fabricating skill was retained in the company or had returned to it because of the sophisticated nature of its operations.

I agree entirely with Deputy Conaghan in regard to being creative. He made similar arguments on a number of occasions and I know he is passionate about the subject. Creativity is one of the set of skills we have identified in the curriculum breakdown of the NCCA. The final comment I will make about the link between enterprise and education is that the children who started school this September will in 12 years' time be studying subjects that have not been identified and acquiring skills that do not yet exist for jobs that have not yet been thought of and problems that have not yet arisen. I was asked many years ago to explain the difference between a technologist and a technician. The difference is that a technician knows exactly how well to perform a particular task but the technologist knows why the task is to be performed. We have to equip young people with the skills they need to analyse and solve problems. That does not mean we should not offer short-term conversion courses but that should be the focus of the formal education system.

2:45 pm

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank both Ministers for their contributions and for answering our questions. This will be an ongoing process for the committee and we will engage with them again in the coming years.

The joint committee will meet again at 1.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 4 December, but I remind members that the Select Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation will be meeting at 4 p.m. to discuss Supplementary Estimates for public services.

The joint committee adjourned at 3.35 p.m. until 1.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 4 December 2012.