Wheel out fewer Scientists to get more Science students

Ireland has a perennial problem convincing young people that doing science, maths, engineering and physics is a good career choice.

I won’t argue with the numbers. John Collins in The Irish Times asserted last Friday;

DESPITE RECENT increases in the unemployment rate, an estimated 7,000 vacancies remain unfilled in the technology sector while average salaries are continuing to increase.

It sounds like heaven. So why aren’t CAO forms clogged with people fighting to get into a technology course? The usual answer  is supplied by Ciarán Ennis from IBM Ireland in the same article

The drop-off in people pursuing careers in technology is directly related to the boom and bust of the late 1990s and early years of this decade…That tainted the industry and it coincided with a boom in construction

But really, that doesn’t hold water as an explanation. The late 1990s are now 9 years ago (I know, sorry to point that out). The people filling in their CAO forms this year were 9 when the first web bubble burst. I doubt greatly that they’re still chastened by the fate of boo.com.

So, what’s the problem with science and technology? I’d like to propose that the people least able to answer that question are people who have chosen to pursue a career in science and technology. By definition, they don’t understand why people wouldn’t want to do their subject- they all picked it.

If they want to reach people who aren’t currently choosing science and technology they need to broaden the base of characters trying to advocate it.

The difficulty with this is that for the underlying problem to be solved the world of technology will need to change itself to be more attractive to a broader range of people.

This isn’t a popular notion, I recognise. Justin Mason, on the last occasion I proposed this idea asked why I thought that scientists talking to the general public about science ought to

dumb themselves down to catch your interest? shouldn’t you, instead, raise your game?

That’s a legitimate position. (well, it would be if I’d suggested that dumbing down was the way to go. But we’ll leave that aside.) But it isn’t a position which will move anyone closer to the declared end result- persuade people who are currently shunning technology and science that it is a career that will welcome them or a subject that will reward their efforts.

Comments gratefully accepted on this post, as I’m so far away from my home patch.


  • Daragh says:

    Long comment.. I apologise in advance.

    I recall reading of a study recently (citation escapes me) that found found that a lot of the problems getting people to apply for IT courses in Ireland stemmed from perception of what IT is

    For example, Gateway was one of the largest employers in North Dublin. It manufactured computers. It went bust in the 1990s. Career guidance teachers then developed the view that there was no future in computers. Computers = IT in general to them.

    That misses a key point. Gateway was primarily a manufacturing/assembly operation. Not a high end design/engineering/development operation. It was closer to washing machine development than machine code development.

    These are the same career guidance teachers who have encouraged students to take up studying law (my sister-in-law, despite my suggestions to the contrary, still plumped for pure law in UCC as a top choice on the CAO). Sure, there’s loads of money in the law. There definitely isn’t an oversupply of barristers and solicitors out there. Plenty of work for everyone I hear. No problem earning a crust. I’m sure no newly qualified solicitor or barrister will argue with that.

    10 years ago, after 4 years studying legally things in college, I had to make a choice… work in an IT management/design role and earn cash or commit to further study to qualify either as a barrister or a solicitor. Much like Robert Frost stopping in the woods, I took the path less travelled by and that has made all the difference. I’m a member of the ICS and darned proud of it. I’ve presented at an academic IT conference and at IT management conferences around the world. Apparently I know a thing or two about my chosen niche.

    James Dyson has talked about the need to have engineers doing proper design and building and inventoring. I agree, but the inventoring (the process of being an inventor)need not be on the Isambard Kingdom Brunel scale or purely physical widgetry… clever technologies or clever applications of technology to solve problems through design in software or information management is as important.

    The Irish Computer Society’s Forumla1 for Schools (where students use Computer Aided Design & manufacture to build model forumla 1 cars) has helped ‘sexy up’ the practical applications of information technology.

    Kirk had Scottie, Picard had Chief O’Brien.. even Harry Hill had Finsbury Park (his Chief Scientist).

    But back to my main point… Careers guidance. It was weak in my day (my career guidance teacher didn’t even know about the course I eventually took as my #1 on the CAO and got). The fact that Career guidance teachers have sent the message that there are no jobs in IT despite there being lots of them highlights the impact of ‘perceived wisdom’. A key factor in there being unfilled jobs today is the decisions taken by career guidance teachers and students 5 years ago (4 years of study + 1 year to learn real world skills).

    The key gap to bridge is that communications gap between the ‘technologists’ and career guidance teachers. It is the function of guidance teachers to translate that for students.

    Perhaps the message is being communicated to the wrong people?

    Or to put it another way, should we get Stephen Fry to abandon his programme Kingdom (where he plays a country solicitor) in favour of a new show where he plays a frustrated data architect working on challenging problems for a variety of clients. I would actually pay good money to see Stephen “larynx of tweed” Fry work on defining a ‘Customer’ is in a bank’s database.

  • chekov says:

    From my point of view, the lack of take up of science and IT related third and fourth level places is easily explicable. They are pretty rubbish paths to careers compared to others in terms of the investment of time and smarts required and the results in terms of money, prestige, fame, pleasant lifestyles, security, comfort or any of the other metrics by which such things are evaluated by most people.

    There was a brief boom in IT related jobs in the late 1990s, but that was down to the fact that the relative benefits of an IT career were entirely different vis a vis other options. My earnings peaked in 1999 and are still far off what I earned in that year, for example (I haven’t been trying all that hard in honesty, but the relative change is genuine).

    The thing that will change this is the impending crisis in alternative career paths such as law which are currently way over supplied in terms of bodies, while IT will prove relatively resilient through the recession (whatever happens, the future is unlikely to have less computers in it).

  • doctorbob says:

    Smart kids avoid areas where no jobs exist. These fabled vacancies are not there. There are, however, lots of low paid jobs available – ones where qualified people are not willing to work peanuts for. The people demanding that students train in these areas are looking for low cost workers with high cost qualifications – thats an equation that will never balance.

    Bizarrely these same people are not demanding that industry help pay for these qualifications by training on the job those who have the aptitude and ability. Anyone with work experience knows its the calibre of the individual first and their qualifications second that make a great worker.

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