ICT skills shortage hampers Northern Ireland companies' expansion

Computer screens At least 15,000 people work in the technology sector in Northern Ireland

Amidst the gloom of rising unemployment, here's some good news: a survey by a recruitment firm says Belfast is one of the best cities in the UK to get a job in the information and computer technology (ICT) sector.

But there's a reason for that: we have got a serious shortage of suitably qualified people.

Employers say the skills shortage is hampering the ability of companies to expand, at a time when job creation is desperately needed.

"It's certainly getting close to crisis level," says Bro McFerran, managing director of the American insurance company Allstate.

He employs nearly 2,000 people in Northern Ireland, working in ICT roles.

"It's dis-enabling us to grow the business. We'd like to be a lot bigger than we are.

"Colleagues in the sector are telling me exactly the same thing.

"Tens of thousands of jobs could be created. The executive is keen on making the economy central to government here, and ICT sector could be the engine for growth."

Speaking to Sunday Politics on BBC One, Mr McFerran expressed concern that potential inward investors may be dissuaded from locating in Northern Ireland if they fear that they won't be able to recruit sufficient numbers of qualified people.

"We're in danger of over-selling and under-delivering in this area," he said.

The economist Esmond Birnie of PwC says the local universities and Invest NI have worked together successfully to try and meet the demand for skilled workers.

Investors

But he points out that certain sectors can expand very quickly, leaving policy makers trying to play catch-up.

"Of course its frustrating, and its ironic when you have this sort of situation coinciding with a substantial and rising level of unemployment.

"There are almost 62,000 unemployment claimants at this time.

"Some of this is not surprising when you look at the fact that the economy is always changing and the education and training systems will always struggle to keep pace with that."

At least 15,000 people work in the technology sector in Northern Ireland - and thousands more use IT skills in other businesses.

There are around 700 ICT companies in Northern Ireland, including at least 100 international investors.

More than 60% of those working in IT have a degree, and there are about a thousand graduates a year in ICT and related subjects.

Employers say that more graduates are needed, particularly those with "hard" computer science degrees.

And they want to see a strategic policy from Stormont to encourage the study of so-called "STEM" subjects - science, technology, engineering and maths.

Bro McFerran said: "We need to set ourselves targets for the numbers of pupils taking science, technology and maths A levels.

"A good starting point would be a target of 30 to 40%."

Many of Northern Ireland's major technology companies are involved in outreach projects, trying to encourage children to take an interest in science, as well as promoting career opportunities.

And educationalists are trying to make science a more attractive option.

The STEM Centre, at Dungannon's South West College, is the first project of its type in the UK or Ireland.

The college has invested more than £500,000 creating a unique space where young people can enjoy science and technology.

There's a brightly coloured lab for experiments, a 3D "visualisation suite" and a room full of i-Pads and bean bags.

Start Quote

The interest, particularly among the primary school children, has been phenomenal”

End Quote Malachy McAleer College principal

College principal Malachy McAleer says the centre is helping to make science an attractive option for young people.

"When the colleges of Tyrone and Fermanagh merged, we had poor applications in science, technology, engineering and mathematics," he added.

"We decided that we would have to attract school children right down to primary school level in this whole area.

"The STEM Centre has been highly successful, it's gone way beyond our own expectation.

"The interest, particularly among the primary school children, has been phenomenal."

Conducting a "CSI"-style forensic science experiment with blood samples in the lab, mature student Grainne Creaney said science was now becoming cool with young people.

"I think for a long time, especially when I was younger leaving school, people just weren't interested in science," he said.

"It was seen as very difficult, or just not the cool thing to do.

"Whereas now I think with a lot of media and television shows , it's becoming more exciting and appealing to young people. Bit by bit it's becoming more popular."

Gemma Kennedy, who is 18, is also studying applied science at South West College.

She says the Department of Employment and Learning should respond to the call by business leaders to reduce university fees for those who choose to study STEM subjects.

"I think if we got our fees subsidised when we're studying science, this would encourage a lot more people to take up the subject, because there are a lot of jobs revolving around science and I think it would benefit everyone," she added.

Mark Bullock, who is studying ICT, wants to be a computer games designer.

'Whirlwind'

He has a suggestion on how to encourage more children to study technology.

"They could make ICT a compulsory subject at school and see who likes it who doesn't," he said.

"Most people just think that it's all books, they don't get the fun of it. But it's not hard if you pay attention."

At Allstate, Bro McFerran is trying to address the skills shortage by hiring non-IT graduates and putting them through a "conversion course" that he likens to a Masters Degree in ICT.

Around 500 of his employees have undertaken this type of course.

But it's not a long-term solution and Mr McFerran says there must be a strategic policy from Stormont to solve a problem that's been allowed to develop.

"Ten years ago, when the "dot.com bubble" burst, we all took our foot off the gas," he said.

"We're reaping the whirlwind of that now.

"We need to keep our foot down and get as many people as possible into ICT - that will fuel the economic growth of the future."

Sunday Politics is on BBC One Northern Ireland at 12:00 GMT and the local programme is repeated at 22:55 GMT.

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