Ireland's greener pastures

12th November 2004 at 00:00
An ICT revolution has brought the Irish economy back to life, leaving the UK trailing in its neighbour's wake. James Sturcke reports

For generations Don Murphy's ancestors farmed the lush green pastures of County Cork in western Ireland. One of six children growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, he was expected by his parents to continue working the family's 100 acres. But when he won a scholarship to an agricultural college their joy was short-lived. He had other plans.

"In our area, going to secondary school was considered a success. The electronics revolution was just starting. As a kid I'd look at television and think 'How in God's name does that become a picture?'

"My parents were disappointed that I did not want to go into farming. They had no knowledge or understanding of computers."

Don, now 38, signed on to a two-year certificate of electronics at Cork Institute of Technology in 1982, which he followed up with a one-year diploma, before starting work as a technician for a fledgling firm making data storage devices.

In the maturing information and communications technology industry Don progressed to become an engineer, gained a manufacturing electronics degree, and now heads a 70-strong team as production and materials manager for Moog, which makes electronic components for aircraft.

He has been part of an ICT revolution in Ireland which has seen the country change from a largely agricultural economy to an IT hotbed in less than a generation.

Two decades ago the Irish economic outlook was bleak. Public debt was at 120 per cent of national income, unemployment levels were more than 15 per cent, average earnings were little more than half those in Britain and a seemingly endless drift of people were leaving the country.

Today the Irish government borrows little, unemployment is under 5 per cent, gross domestic product per head is greater than the UK's, and parts of Dublin are as cosmopolitan as London.

At the heart of Ireland's Celtic Tiger transformation was its young, literate, English-speaking and cheap population who, along with a 12 per cent corporate tax rate (among the lowest in the world), attracted the new technology firms. Apple set up in Cork in 1980, IBM arrived in 1982 and - the biggest catch of all, though they didn't know it at the time - Microsoft came in 1985.

Ireland's small size and concentration on ICT industry has helped establish good communication links between firms and education providers. The absence of traditional industry, other than farming, meant courses were designed from a clean sheet with the flexibility to adapt to changing demands.

Paul Sliney, head of electrical and electronic engineering at Cork Institute of Technology, says: "We refer to it as the ladder system. It is part of our mission that we can take any kid, even someone with only a modest school record, and put them on a path that leads to a PhD. Or they can leave with a certificate and get a job, possibly coming back at a later date. We are much more flexible than many European countries. Increasingly we are about continuous professional development."

He too believes Ireland's snugness, where everyone knows each other, is a blessing. The Cork Electronic Industry Association, made up of education providers and 40 firms including Apple and Motorola, meet every month so colleges and industry maintain close relations.

Across the Irish sea IT has been less of a success story. England and Wales, again boosted by the English language and a dose of American business culture, are better placed than most but have been slow to realise the potential of IT.

Hilary Steedman, senior research fellow at the London School of Economics, says: "There has been a failure to exploit the potential of IT apprenticeships. I visited 40 companies and hardly any of them knew about apprenticeships."

Dr Steedman attacks the inflexibility of the UK system and wants to see apprentices more involved in tasks which boost firms' profitability. She bemoans the proliferation of qualifications which confuse employers.

Work-based learning must also become a more widely accepted route to higher education, she adds.

With the pace of technological change far greater than the ability of government to react to it, firms have tended to set up their own training.

Simon Culmer is UK operations director (public sector) for Cisco Systems, which builds computer and telephone networks, and a member of the Tomlinson committee. Started in California's Silicon Valley in 1984, the firm now employs almost 40,000 world-wide.

"Cisco was growing unsustainably," Mr Culmer says. "Seven or eight years ago there were predictions of a 100,000 shortage of qualified people.

Rather than sit around twiddling our fingers, we decided to do the training and that led to the Cisco network academies. There are now 634 academies which have helped keep people in education or got the unemployed back to work."

He believes further education students are being held back because many UK secondary schools have inadequate IT resources and teaching.

"We need to see businesses getting involved in education. Some of that means people in business giving up their time. But it is also businesses sharing with education locally what it is we are looking for and inspiring people to work for us."

Licensed by the Government in April 2003, E-skills is the IT industry's skills sector council. CEO Karen Price envisages more demand for increasingly sophisticated IT training as basic tasks go offshore. She expects Britain's 1.2 million IT professionals to continue largely being trained through private providers but sees a significant role for colleges in improving the skills of the 21 million people who use computers at work.

"We lag behind all the G7 countries bar France in our take-up of e-business," she says. "It is essential business begins to work alongside FE."

She points to the e-skills passport, a new scheme where people and employers can assess their skills levels and needs, and to the new information technology qualification, a replacement of the national vocational qualification, which attempts to tailor training far more closely to individual company and student requirements.

But increasingly her aim is to make managers more aware of the competitive edge high ICT skills give firms. She says: "Continuous professional development of managers is a neglected issue. Managers need to understand what technology can do to improve their competitiveness.

"But my hopes are high that in a few years we will be way up at the top of G7 countries."

But it won't be a pushover. Countries such as Ireland woke up to the need for continuous learning years ago, as Don Murphy remembers.

"There was a great void of adult degree courses until about the mid 1990s, but now continuous education is strongly promoted," he says. "I've got 70 people working for me and I see plenty of my colleagues studying for Open University qualifications. There has been a significant change over the past dozen years or so and we are now going along a US-type system where you get more qualifications throughout your career."

"The Impact on Firms of ICT Skill-Supply Strategies" by Hilary Steedman can be downloaded at:

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