Addressing the STEM shortage in Ireland

Guest post by Jennifer Deutsch Chief Marketing Officer, Park Place Technologies

With an established high-tech and life-sciences knowledge based economy, Ireland has been at the forefront in the increase of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) uptake both within education settings and within the workplace. Given its rooted tech dominance, it is unsurprising that prioritising sustainable STEM remains an ongoing effort. In fact, since the Celtic Tiger first roared in the mid-1990s to service the burgeoning software industry, and more recently, the data centre industry, successive Irish governments have assumed a progressive stance to address demand outstripping supply of tech workers. Yet due to favourable geographic and government incentives on offer, increasing numbers of multi-national tech giants still favour expanding an Irish IT base ahead of EU neighbours, placing extra pressures on the available talent pool. In response, one of the governments’ key considerations is to target females with long-term STEM recruitment and retainment policies, with the view to make tech and engineering industries more attractive as a career path.

Quantifying the size of the Irish recruitment gap is a dynamic issue, as it grows with every data centre planning approval awarded (and there are currently seventy new data centres in planning). SOLAS, Ireland’s state agency responsible for filling education gaps to match the needs of industry, recently identified¹ that 46% of Irish science, engineering and tech companies were struggling to fill key roles such as application developers, IT engineers and data centre leads. Globally, Gartner confirmed similar shortages and identified that IT talent deficits are now the biggest barrier for CIOs in embracing tech innovation, rising from 4% to 64% critical concern levels.

How will this gap effecting half of all regional IT vacancies be plugged? The current government has adopted a series of STEM policies incorporated within an Irish national plan that stretches to 2026, with the one central theme – ‘to foster development of an engaged, digitally-savvy society and a highly skilled workforce where entry is facilitated to encourage STEM uptake for all, while promoting computational thinking and digital skills.’ As such and with a relatively small domestic population, Ireland’s aims for the future stretch far beyond its own borders, with a view to attract top talent from across the EU by branding itself as a leading STEM educator and provider. To achieve this education pillar, Ireland’s STEM policy must show significant impact even before school begins – within early years settings – with the government now placing significant emphasis on initial education environments to nurture learner engagement and participation from the get-go, retaining the joy of STEM learning throughout the entire school journey. And later in a student’s academic journey, higher and further education colleges have been encouraged to incorporate and add more attractive and relevant STEM course options. These include digital technology specialisations including IoT, cyber security, data analytics, Machine Learning and AI. Without achieving such specific skills, Ireland faces a consistent shortfall in the labour market in the race to enable manual roles to become automated and highly digitalised.

Have these broad policy efforts impacted female representation as STEM professionals in country today? Growth demand for STEM skill sets is still rising and now sits around 8% – (5% greater than growth demand forecasts for other occupations), with nine out of the top ten global software companies having a presence in region. For females, adoption is still a mixed landscape. In Science, the breakdown between males and females is roughly matched. Yet in Technology, Engineering and Maths fields, the employment balance is far from equal with a strong gender disparity still evident. The work positions are there. But females seemingly prefer not to select them in the first place.

How is this still occurring? Successive governments have repeatedly acknowledged that while choices and stereotypes are likely to start far earlier in a girls’ school career, one of the first real data indicators in the tracking of loss of uptake in STEM subjects can first be evidenced within applications for higher education college and university places. Here the data is mixed. There has been an improvement of selection of STEM courses overall, up by 40%, but of these elected courses, only 19% of undergraduates are selected by females. The trend continues into academia settings, with representation levels of under 20% of female professorships. In the workplace, 25% of jobs that require STEM skills are undertaken by women – but notably with an even greater under-representation of female senior execs at management levels. This all matters, not least because those who make innovation shape innovation – and the jobs of the future. With such a strong bias in high-tech, without female talent, Ireland can neither fulfil it’s current or future innovation plans for the economy. Ireland is not unique. Further afield, one recent study showed that by boosting females into STEM positions globally, world economies would benefit by an additional $12 trillion by 2025.

Positive early attitude enforcements to STEM uptake also need to apply to areas outside of academia, such as consideration of the gender of tech role models in media, film, television, dolls and toys. Viewing females that are thriving in previously male dominated roles helps young girls aspire that they too can achieve success. All influential adults can help to mentor girls to break stereotypes and amplify their achievements along the way. Career guidance needs to be modernised and reflective of today’s job market – with careers advisors offering advice and a far greater understanding about the diverse range of job roles and potential career paths available. Diversifying the scope of STEM also applies to recruitment policies and changing the wording of tech-talent positions. In the past, positions have been advertised that appear heavy on the coding and technical requirements and far less descriptive on the potential positive impacts of what the role will bring to the organisation.

And what of Ireland’s efforts on retainment in keeping women engaged and attracted to their positions in technology and engineering throughout their career? This involves ongoing assessment of renumeration and working conditions. Thankfully, pay gaps and glass ceilings are now regularly examined to ensure pay parity, and flexible working conditions to allow for females to combine families are relatively mainstream. Hybrid working – catalysed through the Pandemic – has also facilitated far greater flexible working practices than set office-based routines.

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