Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 28 May 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation
Creating Policies that Work: Discussion with FIT
We are here today with representatives of Fast track to IT, FIT, to review the joint committee's report entitled, Creating Policies that Work, and the concept of an ICT associate professional. I welcome from FIT Mr. Tom Rourke, chairman, Mr. Peter Davitt, CEO, Mr. Paul Sweetman, board director, Mr. Tony O'Donnell, board director, and Mr. George Ryan, chief operations officer.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I call Mr. Davitt to make a presentation to the committee on the concept of an ICT associate professional.
Mr. Peter Davitt:
I thank the joint committee for its time, which is very much appreciated.
There are four elements to our presentation - an introduction to the topic; some of the challenges involved; looking at solutions; and some conclusions and recommendations. Ireland has always valued a strong education system, but it requires an overhaul. In particular, the further education and training, FET, sector has grown in an unco-ordinated way without strategic direction. As a result, the significant potential of the sector to contribute to growth has not yet been realised. The business community is supportive of the efforts of the Government to create the structures that can unlock that potential and is keen to become a proactive partner in the transformation process. Developing the skills base or business need is an essential component of growth and competitiveness and a shared responsibility.
FIT has brought much innovation to the FET sector by identifying skill needs in the ICT and technology sectors, by developing matching new streams of recruitment for employers, by identifying and activating under-utilised talent in the ranks of the unemployed and by refocusing publicly-provided skills training in collaboration with the Government and its agencies. FIT has advocated the role of skills development as a transformative strategy for Ireland for more than an decade. More recently, FIT carried out an ICT skills audit with a representative sample of major corporates and SMEs which identified the specific skill sets that ICT employers are currently seeking to fill and which cumulatively amount to approximately 4,500 vacancies. The responses from the employers surveyed showed a demand for skills at all levels. The shortages at higher levels of expertise and experience are already well known and the focus of existing industry-Government action plans. However, less information has been available on the skills needs at entry and intermediate level and the skills audit has provided empirical evidence of what those requirements are. The FIT ICT skills audit informed the proposed initiative and helped to envision and articulate an integrated strategy whereby FET and the higher education system can undertake a more shared and co-ordinated role in addressing employers' skills requirements in short, medium and long term. From our perspective, we are in the midst of a challenge and that presents opportunities. There is a growing and emerging skills shortage within IT and related sectors but there are new opportunities to respond to those needs.
Today's knowledge economy is characterised by rapid skills obsolescence. As business needs evolve at local level, demands are placed on education and training systems to evolve their curricula, but such systems, many of which are relatively centralised, find it difficult to adapt at the required pace.
FIT welcomes the recommendation of the joint committee's report, Creating Policies that Work, which focus on solutions to youth and long-term unemployment. In presenting our proposals today, we are confident that they address key issues outlined in the Oireachtas joint committee's report, particularly in relation to new forms of apprenticeships, stronger employer linkages and international best practice. As intimated by the joint committee's report, a new strategy for skills and competencies development is urgently needed which is radically different from the existing one which has structural flaws that cannot be simply repaired. In this regard, more enlightened countries are reaping the rewards of more effective public policy approaches that demonstrate workforce skills development as a potent process for engaging public and private sectors in powerful alliances that support low unemployment, resulting in highly-sustainable economies.
Germany's economy, as a prime example, is described as having high skills equilibrium, characterised by a broad industrial base with a large number of small and medium-sized companies in addition to larger multinational companies, which are involved in export-oriented activities requiring a highly-skilled workforce. German companies consider apprenticeships to be a vital component to guarantee progressive skills development, ensuring their long-term competitiveness. Accordingly, Ireland's approach to skills development needs a rethink. Ireland has the highest percentage of third level graduates among the 27 EU member states. In contrast to other more robust economies, Ireland has embraced a culture of pursuing third level qualifications as a holy grail, with parents seeing the educational pathway as the predominant one that leads to future prosperity for their children. however, one in four students drops out in year one of third level and youth unemployment is at an all time high in Ireland. Germany, on the other hand, is ranked 18th out of the 27 in terms of third level participation, yet it has one of the strongest economies and lowest youth unemployment rates in Europe. In addition, despite outputs of graduates, we are currently experiencing a severe shortage of skills in our multinational and indigenous ICT sectors, as recently re-affirmed by the FET ICT skills audit, which was launched by the Minister of State with responsibility for skills, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, last Thursday.
The concept of the ICT, as presented, in reality is not totally unique to the Irish experience. If one considers the accounting, legal and medical professions, all of them illustrate dual education approaches to learning and skills development. The term "associate professional", a Central Statistics Office categorisation of occupation for those who work as finance-book-keeping specialists and IT technology specialists, has been adapted to describe the proposed dual education model, combining work-based learning and classroom study as a means of acquiring the comprehensive skill sets and practice required in the modern economy. It is anticipated that such an enhancement to the skills development infrastructure will: bring critically needed market-responsiveness to the education system; respond quickly to the needs of the technology employers; inspire, capture and cultivate much-needed talent for growth sectors; reduce unemployment, especially youth unemployment; nurture, through a combination of practical experience and formal training, the aptitude of learners to acquire the necessary skills; offer excellent careers with unlimited progression opportunities; create a self-adjusting supply and demand linkage model; and allow Ireland to compete in terms of skills.
From our perspective, the implementation of such a plan will require the following key actions: engagement with appropriate stakeholders; establishment of a steering group; programme development; establishing appropriate structures for certification, awards and assessments; an appropriate finance model; designing a pilot implementation; pilot evaluation; establishing the legal framework for the programme to operate within; developing a plan for scaling; and mainstreaming it into education and training systems.
We propose the FET and third level in Ireland should be bridged through the introduction of an associate professional dual education system component which, from our research, would have the support of many companies operating in the technology sector and related areas. It is our intention, with the support of the FIT board companies and affiliate companies, to pilot an ICT associate professional programme in the current year and to seek the support of Government, FET and the third level sector in this regard. The proposed ICT associate professional programme should be supported within the new education and training systems being developed through the reform of structures at all levels, for example, FET and higher education and through the establishment of SOLAS and QQI. Qualifications offered within the associate professional dual education programme should provide a proper platform for progression to higher levels within the national framework of qualifications. The ICT and related technology sectors and Government are encouraged to join with FET in piloting the ICT associate professional initiative as an urgent response to the current skills shortages in the sector in the midst of unprecedented unemployment.
I thank the group for its presentation and the document it submitted to us. From my perspective, any report or proposal which seeks to radically overhaul the education system in a progressive manner is something to be welcomed, and this certainly does that. Any proposals which would ensure that students are equipped with the skills for life and work are ones I would support. There are some very good concepts in this report, and we should devote more time to its consideration and perhaps invite in some other groups to examine best practice in other European countries. I agree that other European countries are ahead of us in some of these areas, especially in the area of apprenticeships. They have a different approach which is much better in terms of the benefits derived from it by the person undertaking the apprenticeship.
I have some questions about a number of issues. While the focus of the model the group proposed is ICT skills, it is also relevant to a number of other sectors, and possibly even more relevant, but every region is different and regions major in different sectors. This type of model would be good for the agrifood sector, manufacturing - the German model is based pretty much on manufacturing and the Germans are very good at it - financial services and ICT. I would have a problem with the model if its sole focus was ICT in that some multinational companies in the ICT sector here tend to employ people in the sales, marketing and administration side of the business. The hi-tech jobs such as those in research and development tend not to be provided outside of the US, although there are some of those jobs in the UK. While the jobs in that sector here are welcome, the vast majority of them are in the sales end of the business. For example, in the case of Google, 70% of the jobs here are in sales, 22% are in administration and 8% in engineering. In the case of Facebook, 45% of the jobs are in sales and 10% are in engineering, although it established its first research and development facility outside the US in London. The vast majority of jobs in the ICT sector, unfortunately, tend to be in sales, which would not be best suited to this model. While the model is excellent and I would support it, we need to examine it in the context of not only the ICT sector but other sectors.
One of the issues for multinational companies in the ICT sector is skill shortages, an issue on which Senator Deirdre Clune recently published a report. The lack of language skills is frequently raised. Do the delegates have views on that issue?
A point I have made at this committee is that we consider ICT from a particular perspective, yet we do not have an ICT model in secondary school, which is bizarre, given the changes in technology. Have the delegates considered this issue and would they support such a scheme?
This model would be very good for different sectors such as manufacturing and agrifood. Do the delegates support my viewpoint? We are an island nation with a single labour market. Have the delegates conducted research on what is being done in Northern Ireland?
I welcome the delegation. We in Ireland have a higher level of participation in third level education compared to Germany. A delegation from the German state parliament appeared before the committee some time ago and when we explained the high level of participation in third level education, one of the Members of Parliament responded by asking who performed the jobs in Ireland and explained that Germany had a high level of training colleges and apprenticeships compared to Ireland. Will the delegates expound on the issue of employer linkages and the sponsorship of students? I know that companies sponsor students at masters and PhD level by paying their tuition fees with a view to employing them afterwards. Is there a role for this? In our education system we have the points race and people want to attend university and take ICT courses. Is it an attractive alternative for young people who want to take an ICT course to be offered an apprenticeship? How do the qualifications compare between an apprenticeship and a university course? Does the student who has studied at university have more marketable qualifications when seeking employment or going further?
Mr. Tom Rourke:
I thank members for their questions. I will put the industry relationship in context. There is definitely a bias in our specific proposal in regard to ICT which is largely due to our origins, but I do not think by any means that the model would be confined to this. In the past 14 years the Fast Track to IT, FIT, model has been a collaboration between industry and government to try to get people from very disadvantaged communities into employment. What we have learned relates to the tighter coupling of the needs of industry and understanding those skills informing the curriculum that allow people to progress into employment. The ICT industry is egalitarian and if people have the skills and capabilities, they can rise without being affected by the other social constraints in the more traditional professions. That is the reason we have such a strong focus on ICT.
There is a variation in the skill needs of multinational companies. I know that my company and those of some of the other representatives present do have heavy research and development functions and there is a variation in functions. One of the challenges is trying to find people with the right skills level in the mid tier, which is exactly the point highlighted in the research we published last week. One of the appeals of this model is that it specifically addresses this, but without putting constraints on people and their ability to progress. What one finds in a large complex multinational company is that they will tend to pull in lots of functions and when somebody starts in a particular role or discipline, one does not tend to limit where they will go within the organisation. Once they are in, they will move; the problem is the entry point, when it is defined exclusively at a graduate level, limits the number of people who come in. We have two problems in that regard. There is a cluster of people who simply do not gain access. This is unfortunate because there are ample opportunities if they had the right mid-tier skills. I emphasise this point from an industry point of view. We are very supportive because of the gaps we see in our own business. I appreciate the worries people might have about limiting individuals' ability to progress, but that is our experience of taking the more traditional FIT graduates who have not come through this apprenticeship type model; a number of people from what would not have been considered obvious paths have risen in organisations once they were in. The challenge is to match people in real jobs in the first instance.
Mr. Peter Davitt:
It is valid to say the IT sector is a broad church of skill sets from the general to the advanced, but in terms of the skills audit we launched last week, they predominantly focus on intermediate level skills, good paying jobs open to what I describe as smart people with smart skills. That is what we are trying to encourage. We are also trying to encourage people not just into jobs but onto career paths in areas such as web development, networking, customer relations management, games development and so on. There is a broad range of skills required that are readily available and accessible to the type of client we want to bring forward but which are much more enabled through the combination of a dual education - theory alongside practice. The model could be applied in a number of other sectors. From our perspective, we are anxious to pilot it somewhere in an area in which we know the skill sets and have done a lot of background work on which skill sets are required. We have a good buy-in from industries that want to collaborate in a new initiative and joint venture. The ingredients are available to demonstrate proof of concept in a good pilot project. Our focus is on building it in the technology sector but also on looking further afield to see how it might apply to other sectors in due course.
In response to Deputy Seán Kyne's point on ICT in secondary schools, there is more that we can do within the secondary school system, in spite of the limited resources available, to give people greater insight into technology and technology careers. The ICT sector could do a little more in explaining what are the different categories of technical skills, for example, explaining virtualisation and cloud as against web development. It is very hard for a 15 to 17 year old to fully appreciate the broad range of skills required. There is greater linkage and we are very interested in exploring further links with secondary schools.
Our vision is to engage 3,000 people over a period of three years, focusing initially in year one on around 250. I stress that this not about qualifications erosion in any shape or form. There is a need for people with third level qualifications. We are not, therefore, presenting this as an alternative for those who would take that route. It is for those who do not take that route or drop out because they do not see it as appropriate to their abilities and skills. One in four students drops out in year one. That is a significant number who are potentially lost to the educational system and the economy and it impacts on the student's family. We see our model as an enhancement to current provision. There is an unnecessary division between FET and third level that one does not find in other countries. If one goes to Germany, Austria or Australia, there is parity of esteem between third level provision and FET which we do not seem to share in Ireland. It is essential to address these issues when we find ourselves in a situation where there is severe unemployment and at the same time a significant skills shortage in the technology sector.
Mr. Tony O'Donnell:
I will follow on from the points made by Mr. Davitt. I work for SAP, the largest company in Germany. It is also an IT company and we have made a very significant investment in research and development in Ireland. Much of the time when one hears about technology companies in Ireland, the media report on companies of which consumers are aware and their operations do not necessarily align with research and development, but there is very significant investment by multinationals in research and development. As a German company, SAP has benefited significantly from this model in Germany. People coming through this model, as well as the more classic academic model, achieve very high levels of responsibility and have excellent promotional and career paths within a company such as SAP.
Let me give an example of how one can progress through this model. My own boss in Germany is very senior within our global business intellegence network, a €1 billion a year business. He came through this model, in which he was partly educated on the job and partly educated through other programmes. It works very well.
From an industry point of view, the big challenge for us is the sustainability and reliability of the pipeline of qualified people coming to us. We are having this conversation at several levels on education. When it comes to competition we do not compete as SAP with IBM in Ireland, we compete with other locations in the global market. We compete by demonstrating that we have a dependable pipeline of qualified people with a range of skills to perform a range of roles. Irish industry and the FDI companies are very keen to support anything that we can do from an industry point of view to enable that differentiated recruitment base. We totally endorse the model about which we are speaking here and we have benefited from the existing FET model. So far in the FIT model we have had FIT students working as interns, FIT graduates who were acquired as permanent hires afterwards. It is a model that we know works.
As Mr. Davitt said, the question is how to achieve the same outcomes of scale. Industry is very supportive of that. In addition, industry is having conversations with third level institutions, for example, I am involved with Engineers Ireland and we have specifically identified the lack of ICT education in secondary schools as a pump-priming problem such that when students reach third level or these programmes, we can be reasonably confident that good people will come out at the other end. We are not getting enough people into that system in the first place to guarantee the volume on the output side. Industry is very keen to support and be engaged with second level as well.
Senator Cullinane spoke about language skills and so on. We are aware of that problem but that is a conversation for another day because it would not fall within the ambit of what we are discussing here today.
I thank the witnesses very much indeed. I found this very interesting. I have been involved with Springboard in recent years and its job is to find people who have become unemployed because their skills are not needed. Most of them have been involved in building and construction and now they must find something else. They are going into senior or third level education. How did we end up in a situation so different from the German one? I can remember when many people did apprenticeships and for some reason that went out. Was that almost to do with a degree of snobbery that made people want to go into third level education and look down on apprenticeships? How do we get back to that? Mr. O'Donnell has just spoken about second level education. What do we have to do at second level? Does the problem arise before then?
Senator Cullinane spoke about the language situation and it seems to me that there are things we need to do. Is our education system influenced by the fact that we have much longer holidays than almost any other country in the world? There are three months free in the summer at second level, practically a month at Christmas and Easter and mid-term breaks too. Do we need to do something with the educational system or at a later stage? Springboard encourages, allows and arranges the courses that people can attend and it is frightening there to discover the participants' lack of IT skills. How do we go about dealing with this? Does it start at an earlier age? Is it too late to do it at senior or third level?
I am a big fan of FIT because over the years I have seen the work it is capable of doing. I have experience of the partnership in Ballyfermot where it worked with Kieran Reid and which was a quantifiable success.
I am also in favour of its approach to apprenticeships and the need to define a new rationale for apprenticeships now but keeping their intrinsic values, and build the new challenges into a tried and trusted system. I was not very happy with the criticism of further education in the report which I think was unjustified. I will suggest why I think so and maybe the witnesses would revisit that criticism.
Further education is, relatively speaking, in its infancy. When it started 12 or 15 years ago there was no blueprint for it. It was trial and error in the best traditions of the vocational sector which has 150 years of European experience behind it. It goes into the marketplace and sees the need to create a continuum between education, training and employability. It has a very good record in getting that architecture right. It has had very significant success in two areas, in the new creative economy it has created levels for computer skills, child care, servicing the sport and leisure industries, creative industries such as theatre and the range of skills tied into that, building stages, designing costumes, etc. I was on the board of the college in Ballyfermot for many years and it has rewritten the script for a whole category of animation and has won huge awards, including Oscars, in that genre. That pulls in maybe 40 sets of skills to create a film, especially an award-winning film. It is under-rated. I have a lot of time for the witnesses and would like them to take a more nuanced approach to that section of the report.
The biggest success of further education colleges is that they have created a great dynamic in working class communities, particularly in Dublin. For example, in Crumlin, Ballyfermot, Inchicore and Coolock, areas where there was high unemployment, the colleges have put further education within the reach of people who would not otherwise have dreamt of going beyond secondary school or even primary school. It has created credibility on the street which is very hard to win. Young people are flocking to these colleges, transforming their lives and the communities from which they come and finding their way into jobs of whose titles perhaps they had never before heard. There is room to change that-----
Mr. Peter Davitt:
I would like to respond to that point first and foremost because it is very valid. In respect of the FET provision, some of our primary providers are VECs and FÁS. The criticism in the report is not of the providers but of the disjointed nature of the provision. There are VECs on one side and FÁS on the other side. The new strategy in terms of the establishment of FET and SOLAS should give a more streamlined approach. It may have come across wrongly in the document. The criticism was not of the providers but of the framework by which FET provision could be made more streamlined and focused. I agree totally with Deputy Conaghan. Our primary providers throughout the country are VECs and FÁS external training. Without them we would not be able to engage the long-term unemployed in the type of courses that we have offered to date.
Many VECs are characterised by experimentation. One has to experiment, dip one's toe in the water. The blueprint is written afterwards. FIT has to take that into account but overall I am a big fan of its work.
Mr. Tom Rourke:
I would like to respond to Senator Quinn's comments. We do need to think about how we present and position this. I have heard people use the word "snobbery" in the perception of these courses. When I was in secondary education there was a definite difference in perception between where my parents wanted me to go to school and the local school which was referred to as "the tech". When I left school I got a job and studied in college at night for the next ten years which effectively meant that I had a far longer day in which to do what we are proposing as a model for IT.
There is definitely a perception issue. It is one of the reasons that we have proposed a pilot programme at a reasonably hefty scale because without a pilot of this scale people will not begin to take it seriously.
From my experience of having taught in third level colleges on a part-time basis, when one gets under the skin of the programmes increasingly everyone has begun to redesign IT programmes in particular around a mix between theory and lecturing and projects. The challenge with setting projects is that they are trying to engage students in the same work as the apprenticeship model does, but they will always fall short because they are an artificial construct, a project created without the direct exposure to professionals. One of the key concepts of the German model is that close working side by side with people who are actively engaged in the work and that mirrors the project construct in the academic model but in a much more realistic way, where all the extra skills around what happens in the workplace beyond the project that makes the project possible are conveyed. There is a perception problem and we need to be mindful of it as we roll this out.
I keep harking back to Germany, but the benefit of having quite a considerable number of senior colleagues in IBM who are Germans working in Ireland is the interesting conversations on the choices that are made for our kids in education. The key message that comes across is the issue of parity of esteem. A German may describe how one of their children has taken the professions route and the other has taken a much more academic route and they have later decided to cross over. That is not spoken about in the way in which we as Irish parents might speak about one of our children who decided to stop pursuing an academic career and took a job or who went into something else. There is an esteem issue which is based on a lack of understanding of what the model means. There will be a need for communicating that very clearly to parents and students so there is no confusion about where this is positioned.
Mr. Peter Davitt:
I have personal experience that illustrates that point. I have twin boys who love computers and both decided to go on to third level. We were, of course, delighted that they went on to third level but both dropped out in the first year. It was not the road for them. It was too theoretical and it was not hands on enough for them. They were able to build PCs and do certain things. Having dropped out they went on to do further education and training in two VEC colleges are loving it. They are getting the certification and are now considering going on to do third level while they are working in IT during the summer months.
I started off as a bricklayer. My father worked in construction as a labourer. At that time he would have encouraged me to take a step up by getting a job as a trade, as one would be sure of a job for life. There are historical reasons for our focus on the next step up. The reality is that third level, excellent and essential as it is, does not facilitate the educational needs of all people. However, at the same time certain sectors of the economy, particularly with the rapid evolution and advancement of technologies, the cycle of new product development is 18 months and one needs a combination of the theoretical practice to understand the technologies but the applied practice in the workplace to keep at pace with the development and evolution. That is the reason we are suggesting the necessity for this type of model to be adopted. The individual will get the dual experience, they will have the theory and practice but they will keep up to date on a day to day basis with the changes and evolution of the technology.
Mr. Tony O'Donnell:
I will respond to Senator Quinn's questions on schools. Significant research is being done by an academic in the Sligo Institute of Technology, who teaches on an IT programme, on the reasons that students in IT courses drop out early. He has done a great deal of socioeconomic and demographic profiling behind that and also work on the academic standard that needs to be achieved. He has found some interesting data on the skills backgrounds of people who go into academia who do not necessarily have it within their families, they have a huge amount of talent for the programme and an interest in it but the academic model is not best suited to delivering the outcome that they want, which is a career in the profession. Programmes like this are a more appropriate vehicle for that.
Our points driven approach to attracting people into programmes is a very poor guide to the successful outcomes at the other end, particularly at the lower end of the points needed for courses. The data shows clearly that student who meet the minimum requirement and 25% about the minimum requirement are more likely to drop out early. That goes back to the fact that the third level model is not necessarily appropriate to all people who want to pursue a career in that sector.
We have found that at third level we have a number of institutions which are ranked at the very highest levels globally so we have a system that has the capacity to produce graduates if it is supplied with the right talent. We come at the very bottom of the EU 27 in terms of our ICT education at second level. Significant data exists on that. We are finding that young people have more access to technology in their homes than in school. The students who are naturally curious and want to be practical do not get any opportunity to do that within the classic education at second level. They develop the aptitude outside and when they go to third level, on day one it is presumed they have never seen a computer before because that is the way our third level model is set up. Individuals with very strong practical skills who want to be in a practical course are, on a third level course taken right the way back to ground zero and they become demotivated and fall out. It goes back to this concept, which has been proven very strongly in Germany over a very long period of time, that one needs to provide a variety of routes to productive careers within the science and engineering sectors. IT is a newer domain within that but there is no reason that the type of model that has been so successful in Germany for generations and is continuing to be successful in IT could not be as successful in Ireland. From a recruitment point of view anything that we can do to grow the availability of skilled potential persons to hire can only be good for the economy.
From the point of view of recruitment in the IT sector, I have hired 20 people so far this year and I have another 20 vacancies between now and Christmas and it is a struggle to find qualified Irish candidates. My major concern is that if one of the major foreign direct investment companies got significant headcount for recruitment in Ireland and in order to source talent they upped the salaries at graduate level, one would get a forms of arms race, in which the IT companies would try to outbid each other in order to get the limited available talent or we price ourselves out of the market when it comes to competing with other locations globally and there is no further growth within our enterprise in the country. That is what we must avoid. Measures such as this must be commended in terms of their ability to deliver more qualified people at a variety of points across the skills spectrum. There will always be a requirement to have people with an advanced technical knowledge and with strong academic backgrounds as well. As with any other industry there is a requirement for skills at many levels and a variety of skills will be required in order to make projects a success. Anything we can do to endorse that or anything that committees such as this or public policy can do to assist with that can only be a good thing.
Mr. Paul Sweetman:
As well as being on the board of Fast Track to IT, I also represent ICT Ireland, which is a representative group for all of the tech companies in Ireland. One of the key issues the Governing Council of ICI Ireland have asked us to work on is the skills agenda. Senator Quinn queried from where does one start to get people interested in IT. A significant level of work has been undertaken on policies and initiatives to get youth interested in careers in the technology sector. It has proved very successful and this is borne out in the metrics, with a 20% increase year on year over the past two years in applications through the CAO for tech-related courses. That is all very positive news, but today we are raising the issue of an associate professional model, which is an alternative. We have many people who are interested in getting involved in the tech sector. They understand its great potential yet there is only one option in terms of the route to get into this field. This is opening up another avenue in which many of the companies are competing within competing jurisdictions where this model is in place. It is about giving options to people in terms of the choices they are making about careers.
I wish to discuss the research and development issue raised by Senator Cullinane. We must be conscious of the trends in the industry. Companies who have been here for decades have fundamentally changed what they do over the years even though the name over the door remains the same. They have moved from physically packaging software to writing it. That change took place because of the comfort their headquarters enjoy due to the ability and capability of their workers here. We have witnessed that many companies who may have been involved in sales initially have made a dramatic move into research and development. They were ahead of the curve in all of the reports. We want to be in those anchor positions and retain the facilities here. There is a trend for companies to move towards research and development. The most important thing that we can do is to ensure that the skills are here for when they choose to make changes. I shall give two practical examples. Fujitsu Laboratories has chosen to hold its first event in Ireland this week. It is only the second time the company will hold such an event outside of its headquarters. It chose Ireland and shows that companies are moving into the research and development space.
Our association has based an initiative around the commercialisation of research at third level institutions and companies and will provide a matchmaking service. It has proved to be one of our most popular initiatives over the past two years and hundreds of companies are involved. It proves that there is an underlying trend for companies to move towards a research and development agenda. We must maximise our options and get people involved. One route is third level and another key route is the modern apprenticeship model proposed here.
Mr. Peter Davitt:
Mr. Sweetman alluded to a point that was contained in our skills audit of major multinationals and SMEs. In the area of competition for skills there is a potential for many of the companies based here to compete internally and attract more employment opportunities to Ireland but only if we have the right skills. We have conservatively estimated that a further 10,000 jobs could be attracted to Ireland if we had people with the appropriate skills.
I compliment the delegation on its survey and on producing a skills audit report. Some of its findings are alarming. At present 450,000 people are out of work in this country but 4,500 jobs remain unfilled in the sector. In the short term 10,000 new jobs are in danger of going to foreign employees. In other words, the companies must seek people from outside of the country to fill the vacancies. That is shameful and farcical in the current economic climate.
Recently an interesting Brightwater IT survey 2013 was published. It found that companies proclaim that colleges are not equipping IT graduates with the necessary skills to get a job. The company executives have warned that universities focus too much on theory and not enough on practice and teach old computer languages that are no longer used in the workplace. We are like the Third World in terms of getting up to speed in order to attract foreign direct investment. They must have no confidence in the country.
I commend the efforts made by today's delegation but it will take a lot to catch up. Progress must be made in the sector. Furious Tribe has its headquarters in Dublin but located its business outside of the country. Its executive manager is Mr. Patrick Leddy and the company employs up to 24 people. The company had to move to Poland and he has set up training courses there. In order to fill the void in the sector we will end up sourcing graduates from Poland and other Eastern European countries. How can we fast track training here when the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation and all of the other stakeholders are involved? A lot of work needs to be done. We cannot wait six months or a year. We need to act today and I hope that today's meeting will be fruitful.
I apologise for not being here at the beginning but I had to attend another meeting. I read the overview beforehand and I thank the delegation for the report.
Mr. Peter Davitt has attended here before and we had a lot of discussions on that occasion. He spoke about the survey at the time and it is important to discuss it now. Previously the committee held a meeting with Mr. Sean O'Driscoll from Glen Dimplex. We discussed what happens in Germany and how to resolve the problem that Ireland does not make anything any more.
I listened to the earlier discussion. As the delegation will know, the Government has an ICT action plan which is just as it says on the tin. The graduate conversion programme has grabbed the main headline but a lot is also being done in education. Can the delegation comment on the action plan and whether it is beneficial?
I agree that third level IT courses are academic in nature and put people off. Third level institutes, institutes of technology, university associations and the third level sector have attended here and there was talk of developing a direct liaison with industry. I was surprised that direct liaising has only taken place in the past 12 months. One would think that it should have always existed when developing courses. Can the delegation comment on those few points?
Mr. Tony O'Donnell:
I shall commence by responding to Senator Clune's last point on direct liaison. There is a third level computer forum. Last Thursday I attended such a forum along with senior research and development figures from IBM, Google, a number of other companies and the heads of IT departments from all of the institutes of technology and universities. The industry is willing to provide input on the nature and curriculum of courses, the types of computing language as mentioned by Deputy Tom Fleming, and on the projects that students should undertake in order to be prepared for the industry. The third level sector in Ireland is open to our input, bar one or two institutions. Focus on that type of interaction is sometimes driven by the personalities who run the departments and when they change direction may slip a little. The industry is happy with the nature of the courses. In terms of what Deputy Tom Fleming said, it could be counter productive for the industry to think any other way about the quality of computing courses here.
As I said at the outset, there is a lack of people emerging from the courses. A number of the programmes in Ireland are highly rated internationally. There is a demonstrative capacity in third level if the courses are provided with the appropriate cohort of input students who have the aptitude to make the most of an academic career path. We want students to come out the other end and we want courses to deliver high quality and high calibre people. We have found there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The academic route is not always the most appropriate. It works very well if the right people join but clearly we must investigate other routes.
The apprentice model is one which has had huge success during long international experience as a method for delivering people to the market. It would complement wonderfully what we are already doing very well within the academic sector.
Mr. Paul Sweetman:
Senator Imelda Henry asked if the ICC action plan had been valuable and about how it had been received. It has been incredibly important in a very direct sense to investment in Ireland. In the course of our work we often speak to board delegations from abroad about investments in Ireland and many boxes are ticked in terms of the facts and figures that can be ascertained about finances and taxes, etc. When it comes to the skills agenda, on which the ICC action plan focuses, that argument is a great deal more nuanced. People must use their gut to know whether they will be able to hire people with the right skills in Ireland. When we have made presentations to board companies, they have often been sceptical about the skills issue having heard much the same debate in other jurisdictions. Through our discussions, they have gone from being very sceptical to being envious of the work that is ongoing in Ireland. They are very impressed that industry and the Government are getting together to work on the key issues involved. The action plan is very important because the key actions are to be delivered. It also shows companies that people in Ireland are willing to work together to solve a major issue. That gives companies great comfort. I am happy to say all of the companies to which we spoke at board level about the skills issue have made major announcements on Irish jobs in the past 12 months. It has been incredibly valuable, therefore, at that high level.
The industry-academia collaboration was mentioned. A foresight group has been established within the ICC action plan. While there is still some work to do in that regard, the forum is available. The action plan is a living document and represents a very strong vehicle. As there will be several iterations of the plan, it might be worthwhile making the associate professional programme as the next action, as it would get wide industry support. The policy structure is already in place within the Department of Jobs, Innovation and Enterprise and the Department of Education of Skills. It is ideally suited to be located there.
I have always been fascinated by this subject. I was at a European briefing in Copenhagen at which it was raised on a number of occasions. I learned that the likes of Germany, Austria and some of the Scandinavian countries had much more progressive apprenticeship schemes than we did. What ends up happening to the one in four who drops out of college in the first year? Have the delegates followed this up or just left it as a statistic? During my own university days at least 25% failed first year and we did not know where they went. It is an interesting concept.
We have a number of schemes, including JobBridge. How many companies in the IT sector are actively participating in that programme? The greater the participation, the more we can change the skill sets of individuals.
Will the delegates identify second level schools which might be classified as progressive in what they are trying to achieve through good computer science and technology course and which are geared up to recognise practical students who would fit into the type of programme about which we are talking? I have always found that industry drives where jobs are going to be created and where we should be picking things up. The delegates spoke about contact with third level institutions. How much contact have they had at second level? It is at that level that pupils make decisions. I have spoken to children in my local area and I am driving them towards the science subjects because Kerry Group has moved into my area. If pupils want to stay there, it means being able to get a job in that sector.
I want to comment on the adaptability of what we have in place for a changing economy. In my time to do the leaving certificate examination was great. Many children left school at junior certificate level and became apprentices. Senator Feargal Quinn has pointed out that it was not seen to be a progressive route as one was getting one's hands dirty. There was an element of snobbery about it. At the height of the boom, FÁS was a disaster. It was spending €1 billion on training when there was a 4% unemployment rate. Do the delegates believe we have something in the SOLAS model which will enable us to adapt to the rapid change in the economy? The economy has changed from what it was three or four years ago and will change again. The international economy is changing.
Mr. George Ryan:
We have looked at the situation in Germany and members have heard the international presentations. Germany has had a system like this in place for up to 500 years. We might wonder how hard it will be for Ireland to make the change. It is a cultural thing. German experts and those who advocate the model say one cannot, as such, just transport the German system into Ireland. However, one can learn the lessons from it. One of a number of countries we have studied is the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, which has been on a journey of change. There is a FIT Northern Ireland initiative. In the past six years and spanning Labour Party and Conservative leadership, there has been a common agreement on the need to move towards modern apprenticeships. It started under the Labour Party and has been continued under the Conservative Party. In the past five years 25,000 people have gone through the advanced apprenticeship programme in ICT. We have looked closely at it and discussed it with Microsoft, a member of our board, which has a 3,000 person initiative within the figure of 25,000 - 1,000 people a year over three years. We can see it working in a country that is not in a stronger position. The United Kingdom has a 6% apprenticeship rate, whereas the rate in Germany is over 50% and perhaps up to 70%. As it has been quite successful, we have tracked it. While Ireland does not have the same culture as Germany, there are other countries which have made the journey.
While FIT is not a schools initiative and is, rather, focused on reducing long-term unemployment through training, we have nevertheless seen that schools do not have enough information. As part of a gesture towards dealing with that issue, we are supporting this year a summer school at the College of Computer Training on Westmoreland Street in Dublin for 300 transition and fifth year students. They will spend half a day a week for three weeks learning about programming, networks and mobile applications. This curriculum is not available in schools and hard-pressed teachers cannot necessarily teach outside their curriculum. We have started this small initiative with the college and must acknowledge the role of Microsoft. We would like to see more of this taking place to allow young people to experience ICT as developers and creators rather than as users.
I have not answered all of Deputy Anthony Lawlor's questions, but I cannot talk about Springboard as we do not operate the programme.
FIT operates MOMENTUM, the new Government programme, which funds IT and other skills development in the further education system. We have approximately 500 participants and we are seeing strong engagement by industry in terms of internships. We were talking to our chairman before the meeting. His company is not even waiting for internships in some cases; it is hiring people straight from the programme without going through a three-month internship. We are seeing what the skills audit is saying in practice. There is a demand for people with practical skills. Another board member talked about the urgency relating to this and we agree with that. However, we also see a great deal of political interest in this. People pick up on a good idea and wonder why we are not doing something, because it is obvious. We agree that it is obvious. It is not a new suggestion, as it has been adopted in different countries.
How many companies are set up to take on young apprentices? Mr. Ryan is talking about fully qualified people who can fill the jobs that are needed now. Have companies the capacity to take on those aged between 19 and 21 part-time while they learn the practical skills required?
Mr. Peter Davitt:
The idea behind the IT associate professional concept is to have another vein of activity going on. We have spoken to the board companies within FIT and to affiliate companies and there is strong interest in exploring such an initiative as an added strand of skills development. Therefore, we are confident that, should we get this up and running effectively, we will be able to engage, progress and place 3,000 people through this programme in three years.
Deputies Lawlor and Connaughton made a good point about the VECs and FET provision. There are good examples of FET provision around the country with which we are familiar and on which we collaborate. There are good models of general provision. The VEC colleges and schools in general have limited resources but there are good examples both at second and third level.
Building on Mr. Ryan's comments, while our primary focus is on enabling the long-term unemployed to consider IT skills, we have felt a greater obligation to encourage more people to consider technology and the ICT sector as a potential future career initiative. We have started an initiative with Microsoft called Youth2Work under which we will try to encourage up to 10,000 people over the next three years to consider IT as a potential career employment opportunity. There are other interventions available.
Another element of this strategy, which we mentioned in our skills audit, is an improved joining of the dots. There are many examples of good initiatives but there could probably be more effective co-ordination and orchestration between them.
As Deputy Lawlor said, it is fundamental that we get the SOLAS and ETB model that is ultimately adopted right because it will determine our education and training provision for the next 50 years. It needs to be flexible and responsive to national as well as regional needs. For example, the skills requirements of the south east might be different from that of the north west. Ultimately, it has to be responsive to the needs of employers. As we adopt the SOLAS and ETB infrastructure, we need to put in place the correct infrastructure, which is responsive to the needs of industry and, equally important, the needs of learners.
CoderDojo is a major initiative around the country in the context of education. I have young kids and there are a significant number of computer camps, even at primary level. The future for IT will be strong. More women are being brought into the industry as a result. Traditionally, it has not had much female representation.
I presume FIT can be used by people who find themselves unemployed to begin a new career and that it is not aimed just at 18 and 19 year olds.
Mr. Peter Davitt:
We seek the committee's support and endorsement in promoting the development initiative. We have a strong commitment from the technology sector and our IT companies to initiate this programme. We want the same support and encouragement from the Government and from education and training providers. We are anxious to get the first of the pilot projects up and running by the end of this year. This is an opportunity and a good-news story. There are job opportunities that can be readily exploited, and we can increase the attraction of Ireland through initiatives such as this for further FDI.
DIT Kevin Street and Bolton Street were always great for apprenticeships. How will the colleges tie in with this initiative? I acknowledge Mr. Davitt's comments about SOLAS's long-term role, but what is happening now?
Mr. Peter Davitt:
The initiative will be a combination of college and workplace learning. It will, therefore, be a combination of working with FET providers or institutes of technology and the workplace. There are sufficient facilities out there that could be put to good use both in the learning institutions and within industry to facilitate this.
Mr. Peter Davitt:
That is what we are doing. We are working with third level and FET providers to develop the bridging curriculum and the response to these particular intermediate skills opportunities within the technology sector. We have done the work on the curriculum. We know exactly what has to be provided and we see this programme ranging from two to three years - with three being the longest duration and the normal duration being two - to get highly qualified people into the workplace.
I will ensure the transcript of this meeting is forwarded to the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, with a covering letter from the committee endorsing the initiative. If FIT experiences problems along the way, the representatives should feel free to come back, as we would be more than happy to help them.
Mr. Tom Rourke:
I thank the committee for its time. The endorsement cannot be underestimated in terms of the perception of the programme. I smiled when the Acting Chairman mentioned CoderDojo because that comes up a great deal. When we spoke to the Minister of State last week, I told him I had heard that over many years the parents of the founder of CoderDojo tried to encourage him into one of the more traditional professions, from which they had come. He is a great example of the mixture of the practical and the workplace. It happened in a particular way for him and we are talking about a different model, but the positive perceptions of that programme through word of mouth and recognition of its value by the right people have been instrumental in its becoming a global phenomenon from modest beginnings. A key issue for us will be the perception that the people who come through this programme have made a positive choice and not a lesser one than going the academic route. We are confident about employability because we know industry needs these people, but we need the broader community to recognise that this is a positive and worthwhile choice for jobseekers, whether they are straight out of secondary education or unemployed and seeking to reskill, and not second best. The committee's endorsement of that would be hugely helpful. I thank members for their time.