Op-Ed Article in Irish Mail on Sunday, 29 April 2012
Are you sick of hearing bad news? Debt, unemployment, emigration – there seems to be no end to Ireland’s economic woes.
But there is good news – and it could get better. Our high-tech sector is the envy of Europe. Technology companies continuously make new job announcements, as Apple did last week, adding another 500 jobs in Cork. Facebook, LinkedIn and Google are expanding rapidly in Dublin. The indigenous software industry has developed international superstars– and generates vibrant activity in the start-up arena. Ten out of 10 of the biggest high-tech companies in the world have a major presence here, as do 13 out of 15 of the biggest pharmaceutical companies.
It’s an encouraging situation – but unless we act fast, we could throw all this away.
Yes, there are 400,000 unemployed people in Ireland. In the face of that daunting figure, the government doesn’t want to give work permits to foreign nationals. But 200,000 of the jobs lost in Ireland in the last few years have been within the construction sector – and, if you ignored that, we’d be down to an almost-healthy 7% unemployment rate.
Yet at the moment, we don’t have construction jobs. We have high-tech jobs. And training a construction worker to program computers takes the same eight years it takes for that person to become specialized in another profession, like becoming a medical doctor.
We are so busy trying to recover from our current weakness that perhaps we have forgotten about our strengths.
The Celtic Tiger of the 1990s wasn’t formed on the back of the housing industry. It sprang from the growth of the high-tech sector in Ireland, the hundreds of thousands of jobs created by the advent of globalization – meaning Ireland could become the gateway to the EU for US high- tech companies. Housing growth was a side effect of this, not the cause.
And while construction has ground nearly to a halt, the high-tech industry hasn’t stopped creating jobs and wealth – along with growth in exports and our overall economy. We simply took our eyes off the ball in the excitement of the false bubble of the Irish real estate fantasy.
Despite all the distractions and distortions of the current banking crisis, the high-tech industry is still growing. Ireland can continue to benefit from – and accelerate – this growth to help get us out of the economic mess we’ve created for ourselves. Ireland can undeniably leverage our hugely successful information and communications technology sector, and thus revive the economy.
In the long run, we can prepare by training more of our own to become programmers. If we start today, we can increase the pipeline of talent so that a greater portion of our secondary students have the science, technology, engineering and math training they need so they can be competitive with the world’s best. Most great programmers start programming at 14 or earlier, so we have to immediately revamp our education system.
One great example is CoderDojo, an Irish initiative co-founded by James Whelton and Bill Liao. It already has given thousands of Irish youths experience and empowerment in programming. But even if 100% of the most talented Irish youth went into engineering instead of fields like accounting and law, we still wouldn’t have enough graduates to satisfy the demands of the multi-nationals that call Ireland home - not to mention our home-grown technology companies.
In the medium term, we could (and should) retrain some of the unemployed. But for the highly skilled jobs, this is likely to take far too long and cost far too much.
We can’t wait 5-10 years to leverage our high-tech strengths. Instead, we can act now to insure the health and growth of the most robust part of our economy.
In the short term, we can help our tech industry remain strong and keep it thriving. Some recruiters estimate 20,000 jobs are currently unfilled in Ireland, and worse yet being outsourced by Irish companies to other countries because we can’t get the talent.
Economists estimate each manufacturing job in a community generates five to six local jobs, as each euro brought into a community is circulated 10 times before leaving. For example, my job is managing director of Avego. For every 10 programming jobs filled for Avego in Kinsale, up to 60 jobs are created in the community, as these software developers go to restaurants, rent houses, shop at retailers, and buy local produce. Then there is the increased spending of the company – hosting events, bringing in clients from overseas, buying office supplies and expanding. For every 10 programming jobs that Avego has to outsource to Poland or China due to a lack of programmers, that’s up to 60 jobs created there rather than in Ireland.
Why not create those local jobs here?
If Ireland were able to fill all 20,000 high tech vacancies, even if those were populated with imported talent, that could create 100,000 jobs for Ireland’s unemployed. Right now, we can’t find those tech workers here, and even the EU isn’t sourcing enough talent for Ireland. We must be willing to look further afield.
Right now, if an Irish company wants to hire a tech worker from outside the EU, Ireland’s policy is to force the company to jump through an extended set of hoops – from advertising for three months inside the EU to running expensive newspaper advertisements. Wait periods of several further months are common to get through a backed-up queue of work permit applications. Even after all this, in my experience the State routinely sends rejection letters rather than work permits.
This current policy is strangling the strongest part of our economy. As the high-tech shortage grows worldwide, and especially in Ireland, we are finding ourselves with a diminished oxygen supply in the room, and we are closing the windows and barring the doors.
We don’t have to accept this. We can change our policy and say we don’t want our high-tech industries to suffer – nor will we settle for the central growth engine of the Irish economy for the past 30 years to be damaged by outdated though well-intentioned policies.
A new initiative called Open Ireland is seeking to change that: the grassroots organisation envisages Ireland capitalizing on its unique strengths in high tech to springboard the economy back to a heavy and healthy growth rate.
If our government simply proclaimed Ireland as the only English-speaking country in the world with a policy of open immigration for high-tech talent, we’d find ourselves in the enviable position of having to manage our sustained growth – rather than trying to manage our way out of our self-induced recession.
If we can emulate the openness of Silicon Valley, we can generate some of the same dynamic and explosive growth of that famed tech mecca - and reinvent Ireland as the Silicon Valley of Europe. Few people realize 40% of the residents in San Jose were not even born in the United States (including a fair number of Irish).
If we want to create Ireland as the Silicon Valley of Europe, we must open our borders to the world’s best and brightest tech talent and implement a frictionless environment for creating jobs.
Open Ireland. Open our borders, open our minds, open our hearts. And we will become the America of Europe, the land of opportunity and plenty. Close Ireland, and we can say goodbye to what we’ve achieved in the last few decades as multinationals and local companies find it too difficult to work here, and too uncompetitive and expensive to expand here.