In February, I had a conversation with a client who had just begun the recruitment process for a senior software engineer. There was nothing unusual about the role: his company required someone with five years of relevant experience in the telecommunications industry. I spoke to the client again in June and he still had not found anyone that fitted the criteria. Finally, in August, my client called to say the role had been filled. He told me that a process, which a couple of years ago would have taken about eight weeks, was now taking his company more than six months. My client is not alone. Not just in Ireland, but globally, IT companies are struggling to recruit for technical roles. Job websites are awash with posts from recruiters reeling off lists of available technical roles in the hope that the right candidate will click on their advertisement, as opposed to the hundreds of others they have to choose from. It’s a jobseeker’s paradise, but it is a serious problem for Ireland as our economy becomes increasingly reliant on the ICT sector. The sector currently employs 105,000 people – up 40 per cent since 2010. With demand far outstripping supply, our policymakers are concerned and rightly so. In June, Education and Skills Minister Richard Bruton, and Training and Skills Minister John Halligan issued a plea for school leavers to include ICT courses on their CAO Change of Mind forms. But that is only addressing some of the problem. Businesses are struggling to fill senior positions too, particularly in the areas of Java and .NET. It will be 2026 before today’s school leavers have the required qualifications and experience to apply for senior technical jobs. Until supply meets demand, companies will look abroad to fill the gap, as they have been doing for some time. A 2015 report from the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs showed that the IT sector accounted for 43 per cent of all new employment permits issued to people outside the European Economic Area in 2014. Based on the conversations we are having with customers today, the problem seems to be intensifying and as companies embrace digital transformation, demand will continue to increase. The simple truth is that if companies cannot recruit here, they will not be able to expand, they will not increase their contribution to the Irish economy and, eventually, they will take their business elsewhere.

Encouragement to enter IT sector

Of course, the problem is widely recognised and there is great work being done to encourage people to enter the IT sector. FIT, for instance, is a fantastic non-profit organisation working alongside the Government to promote technology-based programmes and career development opportunities for job seekers. Again, though, it will take years for FIT graduates to reach senior level. So what can we do and how can we convince multinational employers that Ireland is where they need to be not just in 10 years’ time, but right now? The responsibility,  both for a short- and long- term solution, lies with all stakeholders. In the short-term, we need to show employers that they can have their pick of the very best multinational talent, all from within Ireland. That requires a seamless visa process, both for the employer and employee. The Government has already made steps in the right direction to make this happen through its Critical Skills Employment Permit - but it is not perfect. The Critical Skills Employment Permit is available to anyone with a salary of over €30,000 in a job that is listed on the highly skilled occupations list. Essentially, its purpose is to ensure that anyone with a valuable skill that is in short supply can come to Ireland to work. From our own experience in Comtrade Digital Services, it is not always as simple as that. We employ a number of people from countries that are not in the European Union, but processing times can be slow and frustrating. It is discouraging, both for the employee and the employer,  that it costs €1,000, payable by the employer or employee, to even apply for the visa. coding-picThe end goal is for Ireland to be producing its own talent and that’s where long-term solutions are vital. It will require the promotion and teaching of ICT skills at every point of the education cycle, starting in primary school. Many children are now learning to code through organisations like CoderDojo, which does an excellent job of promoting coding for kids and making it enjoyable. The next step is to introduce coding and other technical skills onto the school syllabus. If we get children to view IT as something fun and exciting, they are more likely to consider it as a career option later in life – not because it is guaranteed to get them a job but because they enjoy it.

Regular syllabus updates

We are already seeing an increase in young adults enrolling in IT-related university courses and hopefully, the number will continue to grow. But we need to ensure that the skills they are learning in college are transferable to the workplace. Courses must include practical work and be constantly modernised to reflect the latest trends in technology. That does not mean updating the syllabus every couple of years; two years in the ICT sector is the equivalent of about 10 years in other sectors. Courses must be refreshed continuously. Skills that have become basic requirements for software engineers, such as JavaScript and Angular JS, do not even feature on some course syllabuses I have encountered. Businesses cannot just sit and wait for all of this to happen and some companies are now starting to educate the workforce themselves. At Comtrade Digital Services, we have our own recognised university, Information Technology School, in Serbia, which educates 360 students per year on subjects that include JavaScript, .NET, DHTML, as well as project management skills. We also brought our IT summer school, EDIT, to Ireland for the first time this year. Students were given the opportunity to work on a real-life project, creating a booking bot for airlines, under the mentorship of experienced IT professionals, using back-end and front-end methodologies. Many of Comtrade Digital Services’ most senior employees are graduates from our EDIT summer school. Our investment in education has paid itself back manifold and other employers must do the same: they must expect to, and be willing to, invest heavily in the future workforce. Of course, training people to a very high standard means that they are extremely attractive to other employers. Not surprisingly, there is a lot of talent poaching that goes on in the ICT sector. Employee retention is not just about offering competitive salaries. [caption id="attachment_32638" align="alignright" width="300"]Dejan Cušic, business director for Ireland and UK at Comtrade Digital Services Dejan Cušic, business director for Ireland and UK at Comtrade Digital Services[/caption] Technically minded people need to feel constantly challenged to remain stimulated, otherwise they will jump ship to more exciting-sounding competitors. On top of that, they must have a clear career progression path and the opportunity to explore different routes on that path. The solution to narrowing the IT skills shortage is by no means a quick fix and I expect my client will have to face many more lengthy recruitment processes. But with the right people working together to address it, there is no reason why Ireland should not remain the Silicon Valley of Europe. Author: Dejan Ćušić, business director, Ireland and UK, Comtrade Digital Services