Open Borders for Tech Talent – Issue #2
Open the borders of Ireland to the world’s best & brightest english-speaking tech talent
Summary: By allowing up to 75,000 work visas per year to highly-educated english-speaking technology workers into the Irish workforce, we can generating up to hundreds of thousands of jobs per year in the Irish economy, because every manufacturing job in an economy generates 5-6 jobs in the local community.
Ireland has staked an important claim on one of the most critical areas of industry in the world. Software & information technology. And, in terms of Europe, up to now it has won, hands down by winning the European headquarters of the leading IT businesses of the world, from Microsoft and Facebook to Google and Intel and Apple and EMC. It has created a critical mass like no other in Europe.
These are growth businesses that will continue to grow and gain importance in the next
20 years, just as they have grown in the last 20 years. So it is hard to understate how strategic and how powerfully Ireland has performed in attracting this talent and these companies to Ireland in the first place.
Furthermore, with this critical mass of the tens of thousands of successful ICT workers in their Irish home, the potential has been created for a great number of businesses to be spun-off, and entrepreneurs to create new businesses with the expertise that the Irish Software industry has developed in Ireland.
The risk, of course, is that we’ve been so successful in creating software businesses that we don’t realize that we’ve run out of oxygen in the room. Unlike other manufacturing industries, where line workers don’t necessarily have a very specialized skill set that is hard to replicate, the software industry does require specialized talent in large numbers. The factory workers of the information economy require not just willing and able hands, but willing and able, trained brains.
Speak to any CEO of an Irish technology firm and they will tell you of the lack of supply of skilled technology workers. Recruiting firms in Ireland estimate that there are approximately 20,000 unfilled positions in ICT as of this writing (April 2012). The export sector for Ireland is booming, with a record high trade surplus of €44.7 billion in 2011, up 4% over 2010. Preliminary trade data from 2012 shows this export growth expanding further.
Unfortunately people in other parts of the world think that the Irish economy is shrinking, not growing, and so people are not coming to Ireland from the rest of the EU due to fears about the economy crashing.
To these people, we have to highlight the opportunities that exist in Ireland, we have to show them that while there are challenges in the Irish economy, the unprecedented accomplishments we have in technology overweigh those disadvantages.
Up to a point, the Irish can produce these software engineers, product managers, biotech workers, etc. And we can accelerate and increase the production of talented software engineers by beginning development of math & sciences at earlier ages, and beginning programming courses at age 12 or so in our schools or through programs like CoderDojo. But just as it is unrealistic to expect that everyone will be good at software (and other technical fields such as biochemistry, genetic engineering, electrical engineering, etc), we can’t expect the small Irish population of only 4.3 million people to churn out enough world-class product engineers to be able to design world-class products for the world’s 6.8 billion population.
It’s instructive to look at Silicon Valley, in the United States. Despite having a population of 320 million people, the city of San Jose, California, at the heart of Silicon Valley, is composed of 40% immigrants to the United States. People come the world over to be part of Silicon Valley… from China, from India, from Africa and from Ireland.
If we want to truly leverage the great start we have made in technology, Ireland must do the same in opening our borders to tech talent.
Once a company is embedded in a local city, it is very hard for it to move. But the easiest way to force a company to move is to starve it of the oxygen it needs to survive. The oxygen is the workforce, and if the talent isn’t there to create the software or hardware products, then the company will be forced to move.
Two things happen when talent is too tightly stretched. Bidding wars erupt over local talent until such a point that the labor market is so expensive that only the richest and most successful of companies can compete for talent. Other companies will still need to pay these “market” wages for talent, and that will, in turn, drive a lot of companies out of business. In this way, if there is not sufficient talent allowed into or created in Ireland, not only do we strangle the industry, but there is no capability for new start-up companies to start, grow and survive as they won’t be able to sustain the economics of high wages without the support of a multinational’s access to markets.
What does this mean, “world-class design engineers”?
Just as every doctor is not a brain surgeon, not every engineer or programmer is a design engineer. Ireland needs it’s share of local general practitioners (doctors), but it also needs surgeons. And these people generally would tend to graduate at the top 1-3% of their class. Export-oriented software development companies need uncommon design engineering talent as well if their products are going to compete against the best products offered by competitor companies from throughout the world.
What about Ireland’s own talent?
With a population of only 4.5 million people in the Republic of Ireland, 1-3% of our graduating class is only 2,000-3,000 graduates per year. And a surprisingly large portion of those do not choose to study engineering or technical degrees that would help manufacturing companies that are the mainstay of the Irish economy… many instead choose service industries like accounting or law or medicine. These service industries, though necessary to support an economy, generally don’t have a large multiplier effect on making the economy grow faster.
Plenty of other technical graduates are needed, for a wide variety of other exciting roles in supporting the development of markets, implementing software products, etc., but top design engineers are particularly vital.
So that’s one of the reasons why companies like Google in Ireland import up to 80% of their talent from outside of Ireland. Yes, they create lots of jobs locally, but they still need talent from a larger pool of population.
What about growing more of our own talent?
This is definitely a necessary component, no matter what. And the same people behind Open Ireland are also behind the wildly successful CoderDojo program, which is currently generating the next generation of superstar tech talent in Ireland. Over 2,000 kids meet weekly in over two dozen locations in Ireland to learn programming and design. This is a powerful start to the revitalization of Ireland’s development of programming talent. Surprisingly, there was no formal program of programming/software development at 2nd level in Ireland before CoderDojo. (Although Coderdojo isn’t part of the Irish education system, the audience is largely 2nd level students).
While it will take another ten years for these kids to work their way through the system, growing more of our own talent will be a viable source of meaningful careers for a lot of our children.
What about retraining?
Some portion of the labor pool for our expanding technology sector can come from retraining. But just as it would be expensive or impractical to retrain a construction worker to become a medical doctor, it is expensive and impractical to retrain workers to become software design engineers. It takes years of effort and some innate preference and talent for someone to become a great technical talent.
That said, retraining is still a viable option for up to perhaps 10-15% of the demand. Not for software engineers, most likely, but for project managers, product managers, marketing and other supporting roles.
Since it is well-known that every Western country is looking for more of the relatively rare talent of world-class design engineers, why should Ireland succeed in this where others haven’t?
- Ireland speaks English
- English is the international language of tech talent. The programming languages used to program all computers are all based on English, and the technical resources are more available in English than in any other language, so many college courses in technology, even in places like China, teach in English, and all technical talent learn some English on the way to becoming proficient in their technology.
- Few other EU countries have this advantage.
- From Google and Facebook and IBM and HP and EMC and Intel and Apple on down the line, no other small geographic area has the concentration of the world’s leading technology brands.
- Politically, it has never been an imperial power or military threat to any other country; Emotionally, it is a warm and welcoming place; and geographically it has some of the world’s most beautiful countryside, a very mild climate, and a good network of access via airways to the world.
Doesn’t the Irish government already have a policy of allowing technical talent into Ireland through a visa program?
While well-intentioned, the existing programs for allowing technical talent into Ireland are unfortunately flawed and bureaucratic, especially for Ireland’s own companies. Even though it is well-known that there is a massive shortage of tech talent world-wide, every new worker that is brought into Ireland needs to go through a several-months-long effort involving proving that there is no talent available in Ireland. This involves running advertisements in national newspapers, posting job openings to government websites that don’t actually result in qualified candidates applying, and in some cases paying wages at above-market rates to foreign workers to allow them to qualify. Despite all these hurdles, even perfectly executed applications are routinely denied by the civil servants performing these functions, who believe they are doing the bidding of their Ministers in doing so. Smaller companies cannot navigate this labyrinth well, and no company can do it in an agile or inexpensive way.
The goal in an economy, to help it grow, is to make the necessary work of an economy a frictionless experience.
As the Irish government has proven previously, however, in establishing Ireland as one of the best countries in the world when it comes to setting up new companies (#13 worldwide out of 183 economies), when you eliminate friction, you can draw in new businesses and help the economy grow faster.
Unfortunately, the process of getting new technical talent, from abroad, in Ireland comes with a huge amount of friction. And that is not helping our businesses grow.
Why would this policy of allowing up to 75,000 tech talent into Ireland help us? Why wouldn’t this talent be going to the United States instead?
If Ireland created a set of policies that allowed top tech talent into Ireland, we would be the only Western english-speaking country in the world to do so. This would be a massive advantage. The United States currently makes it even more difficult, and more expensive, to get a worker into the US than Ireland does.
In the United States, it has gotten so bad that a group of investors (Blueseed) are buying a cruise ship and docking it 12 miles off the coast of San Francisco to remain in international waters, with the goal of being able to have visitors helicopter in to the ships to visit the staff of IT workers and start-ups on the ship.
Even if the United States dramatically improved their policies on allowing tech talent to come into the US, however, there would still be a need for Europe to have a technical hub. And why can’t Ireland be the Silicon Valley of Europe? Right now, it’s only because of the lack of people.
In fact, US and EU companies actively seek out and set up operations specifically in areas where there is a plentiful supply of tech talent. So by drawing more tech talent to Ireland, we’ll be creating more reason for more companies to make their presence in Ireland larger.
As Ireland has gotten stronger in technology, the talent pool has gotten tighter. This has created a tendency for Irish companies to begin outsourcing some of their work to other economies. However, as anyone who has done outsourcing of R&D knows, the costs of running a large and continuous outsourcing effort are much higher than it would first appear. It would be better to employ talented workers locally, where they would be paid and taxed locally, and where these dollars would contribute to the growth of the Irish economy.
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