A couple of years ago, being an IT student was considered "cool." No longer the preserve of the geek, courses in subjects such as computer science, e-business, and technology were flooded with applications from prospective college-goers who saw the area as a route to riches as the industry scrambled for workers.
Not now, though. The downturn in the technology sector has scared youngsters off and seen them plump instead for the old reliables such as law, arts and business. The result has been an astonishing fall-off in applications to technology courses. According to CAO figures, there was a 26 percent drop in applications for engineering/technology degree/diploma courses in 2002 compared to 2001.
Such a plunge has meant that many colleges have radically reduced their in-take of computer students. Trinity College, for instance, said that only around 20 students had taken places on its information and communications technology course out of a quota of 120. And the University of Limerick has seen the number of people accepting places on its computer systems course halved.
An additional factor in this fall-off could be the reputation of such courses for being very demanding. Indeed, a Department of Education study has shown a non-completion rate of over 40 percent across all Institute of Technology courses.
These declines have sparked concerns among many bodies that when the upturn in the technology sector comes, and it is almost inevitably will, Ireland will again return to the dangerous days of IT skills shortages.
According to the Irish Computer Society, Ireland could face an unsatisfied demand for the estimated 14,000 new IT professional jobs that are forecast to be available in the Irish marketplace in 2005. A recent report by the government's Expert Group on Future Skills Needs estimated an annual shortfall of 2,500 professionals and 800 technicians in the ICT sector between 2002 and 2005.
If that happens, critics say Ireland may lose valuable investment from multinationals, and the competitiveness of indigenous tech firms will be greatly reduced.
Ireland is already under pressure from Eastern Europe, India and China when it comes to attracting inward technology investment, a point that was noted by Microsoft's chief executive officer, Steve Ballmer, during a recent trip to Dublin. Irish industry associations are sounding the same warning.
"The situation is very serious because multinationals will inevitably locate where the skills are available at competitive prices," said Paul O'Dea, chairman of the Irish Software Association.
Tim McCarthy, chairman of ICT Ireland's education working group, agrees. "Unless there is significant additional investment in the Irish education system, the ICT sector in Ireland will suffer significant skills shortages over the next five years," McCarthy said. "It is vitally important that Ireland is in a position to meet the improved environment when in it comes."
To address the projected shortfall, McCarthy said the government should urgently make available the EUR165 million recommended by the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs.
O'Dea said part of the solution to the problem is to make science subjects available to study at primary level. He also said the IT sector must increase marketing efforts to make the industry appealing to college applicants and graduates; colleges, meanwhile, must discover the reasons for high drop-out rates in computer courses and examine how to make such courses more interesting and relevant.
CEO Frank Cronin of the Irish Computer Society said that teaching methods for computers in secondary schools must also be changed. "It gives the impression that computers is a difficult subject, which puts pupils off studying it in the future," remarked Cronin.
Help may be at hand from the government. It has been reported that the Minister for Education, Noel Dempsey, TD, has put forward a plan that will see an extra EUR66 million spent on schools science each year and an additional capital investment of EUR178 million in the project in 2002.
And Cronin said it is has been indicated to him that there will be a major push to promote technology and science courses to next year's CAO applicants.
Whether these schemes have the desired effect remains to be seen. If such moves prove unsuccessful, Ireland must look to Eastern Europe to make up the deficit in IT workers or face being left behind when the sector recovers, said Cronin. "However it is done, the shortfall has to be met. The implications if we don't are enormous."