Posted on Thursday 13 June 2013 by Ulster Business
At a time when jobs in most industries are still thin on the ground, graduates pursuing a career in IT can virtually write their own ticket.
In the last month alone companies such as Deloitte (177 jobs), Allstate (650), Merchant Warehouse (70), Vello (71) and Latens Systems (76) have announced plans to create over 1,000 jobs between them in coming years.
That is on top of the ongoing recruitment taking place in the burgeoning capital markets sector made up of international firms like Citi, Liberty IT, First Derivatives, Fidessa, NYSE Euronext and CME Group – who are also on the look out for hundreds of skilled IT graduates and experienced staff.
There is definitely a buzz around Belfast and it's clear we have the makings of a thriving, vibrant IT sector here in Northern Ireland.
But there is also concern out there that the supply of people coming through to fill these jobs is struggling to keep pace. Programmers proficient in languages such as C#, C++, Java and .NET are wanted by all the employers listed above, and with Invest NI working hard to encourage more financial technology companies to establish sizable operations in Northern Ireland, the competition is set to increase.
It is a problem the industry and government are aware of. Last year, Employment Minister Stephen Farry convened an ICT Working Group to identify the skills challenges faced by the sector and to put in place an Action Plan setting out how these issues will be addressed by business, government, education and training providers in the short and long term.
One of the key issues identified in the plan was the need for more students to study Computer Science degrees rather than softer ICT-related courses and the Minister put in place funding for additional places in our universities.
It is now predicted there will be an output of at least 600 Computer Science graduates from the Northern Ireland universities each year over the next four years. Queen's University and the University of Ulster have also launched postgraduate MSc courses aimed at non-IT graduates to bolster the annual output of Computer Science graduates offering 90 non-IT graduates the opportunity to gain IT qualifications.
But with industry body Momentum reporting that there are 1,000 tech positions currently unfilled, is this enough?
HOT IN THE CITI
John Healy, IT Senior Group Manager at CITI and a member of the group that put together the ICT Action Plan, is very positive on what has been achieved so far to supply the sector with the right skills. He believes Minister Farry should be commended for working with employers to address industry needs.
"This year has been a tremendous year for the universities in terms of interest in technology and computer science in particular – somewhere around 400 people. It will probably take two years for some of that interest to work its way through into the centres like the one we have here at CITI," he said.
"I think they have also done a super job around conversion courses at the universities and all of us have been involved in those. We've hired a number of people off it, so it is doing the business. It is proper computer science that we're looking for, not ICT skills. That has been the big revelation in the sector."
Citi now employs more than 1,000 people in Belfast and Healy thinks the industry body Momentum's suggestion that 20,000 new jobs could be created in the IT and digital sector in the next five years is not an outlandish one.
"If we can get people in to the right subjects and qualified through the universities or conversion courses there's no reason we can't (create 20,000 jobs). We've a fantastic product and sometimes we forget to talk it up," he said.
Healy said that from CITI's point of view Northern Ireland is still a competitive location and that the company continues to find people that it wants to employ here. He believes the programmes and initiatives set in motion will ensure the supply of candidates will meet demand created by more jobs.
"There has been tightness in the labour market and the sector has come together as one to address it. We haven't yet finished all of the out-workings of that, the constraints are still there. But we're definitely making inroads.
"There is so much more we can do, which is something we've told the Minister. If we had the supply we would be able to bring more work here. We are continuing to build and deliver, you've seen that in recent job announcements from Deloitte, Allstate and Merchant Warehouse. There has been a lot happening. So far CITI is not suffering from that, which shows the supply is getting there," he added.
"The risks come from economies like India and China, where resource constraint isn't really a problem for them. They have vast numbers. That is why it is at the very top end, high quality jobs that Northern Ireland is operating. The overarching context is that there is a global shortage of technology skills, not just here, everywhere. But we stand a good chance because we are a small group that can get together with government and hammer out a plan which is then acted on."
ALLSTATE CHAMPING AT THE BIT
Allstate NI recently unveiled an expansion of 650 new jobs over the next few years, 200 of which have already been hired, with 95% from the local talent pool.
The US-owned company, which has been in Northern Ireland since 1998 and has 1,900 employees, has become adept at training people internally to meet its needs, says Managing Director Bro McFerran. He estimates a third of the workforce currently providing key services to its parent, the US insurer Allstate Corp, have non-IT qualifications and as such doesn't anticipate any problem meeting the 650 target over three years.
"If you look at our growth over the last 14 years it is averaging out at about 150 people a year, so it is keeping up the same batting average as we have been doing," he said.
"We still need to keep the pressure on all the government departments in terms of skills. We could create so many more jobs if we had the appropriate skills. My thoughts would be to stack the shelves high and the investment will follow, rather than the other way round, which we've done in the past."
The new positions, he says, are front line IT jobs, not back office jobs, requiring analysts, mathematicians and statisticians. McFerran says the main difficulty Allstate has is in recruiting "the rock stars of the IT world" – those with eight to ten years of experience.
"We are no different to a lot of other organisations, we need those people to sustain the quality of the organisation. That is where the air is very thin in Northern Ireland, in getting those people. It is a very competitive market for getting those sorts of skills and if you talk to any of our peers in the business they have exactly the same issues recruiting those sorts of people.
"I think we are reaping the whirlwind of a lack of activity 10 to 15 years ago and the fact that the political climate that prevailed then meant a lot of people were looking elsewhere for opportunities. With the emergence of large organisations like ours, there are a lot of people who are seriously looking at potentially coming home to good opportunities," he added.
McFerran says there is interaction between the international investors to ensure the advantages that exist in Northern Ireland – namely the low cost base – are maintained.
"We all want to behave as good corporate citizens, we don't want to inflate salaries here. We realise we've got something good going here, that we have to remain competitive and by so doing it is good for Northern Ireland in the long run. We're not going to over pay people and a lot of other organisations that are here and are potentially looking here have the same message. The last thing we want is someone coming in and overcooking things and pillaging the workforce here, that's not good for Northern Ireland," he said.
NYSE GROWING THEIR OWN
Helena Woodward, Senior HR Business Partner at NYSE Euronext says her company continues to be very positive about Belfast and its advantages.
The operator of securities exchanges including the New York Stock Exchange arrived in Belfast in 2008 after purchasing local software firm Wombat and it remains in growth mode.
"Currently, we have 25 open roles, which has been about the same over the last five years. We have 300 employees based in Belfast now, up from 120 five years ago," said Helena.
"We don't use many contractors and our staff turnover is low. The key for us is to develop the people we have in house and progress their careers through training and mentoring. It has always been our philosophy to grow our own at NYSE Euronext while also hiring people in from the skilled end of the market too."
Referrals and a strong brand have helped NYSE Euronext maintain its hiring schedule but Helena agrees that the IT recruitment landscape in Belfast has become more competitive in recent years.
"Software development and testing was central to the expansion in Belfast but there have been so many other areas that have developed since 2008 – information security, network and application support, systems engineering and corporate functions. Some of them, like information security, are real niché areas," she said.
"NYSE Euronext and several other Capital Markets companies in Belfast have come together to form a Capital Markets Collaborative Network in order to address skills shortages and provide a forum for us to discuss compensation as salary inflation is against what we want to do here. There are some anomalies in key skills sets but we are still maintaining the cost base," she added.
To meet its needs, the US-owned company has backed the Capital Markets Academy conversion course and is hiring ten new people from the programme in June.
"The calibre of candidates has been excellent so it may be 15," said Helena.
SWEET HOME BELFAST
Mark Bennett, Executive Director of the Belfast office of CME Group, the operators of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, also remains upbeat about Northern Ireland's prospects as a technology hub.
A year after arriving in Belfast the company has hired around 70 of the 100 positions it initially committed to and expects to reach its target before the end of this year.
Bennett says the Northern Ireland technology centre was a "strategic play" for CME in terms of globalising its technology workforce in line with business growth opportunities, and Belfast had many advantages over other locations.
"Talent is a given. Wherever we go we have to have the availability of talent otherwise there is no point in us being here. The other key for us was proximity to our European customers and our London office who we collaborate with very closely. Belfast is a place that is geographically centred to reach into the US and the rest of Europe," he said.
"One of the things I found very attractive about Northern Ireland in particular was the collaboration between business, the government and academia, which is very good here. The universities are very good at taking input from businesses in terms of what sort of skillsets we're looking for and what we may need in the future and preparing their students for the workforce."
Predominant skillsets for CME in Belfast are software engineers as well as network engineers and desktop engineers.
"I would say that those languages, Java and C#, would be two of the most difficult to find software developers that we are looking for," said Bennett.
"It is never easy (to find the right talent) no matter where you are, and Belfast is no different. One of the key things for us is to work with the university system as well as primary and secondary schools to continue to increase the number of kids who are interested in STEM programmes. I think you'll find a similar kind of feeling from our peers here as well," he added.
The bulk of CME's hires have come from the local market and the promotion of the capital markets business community has also helped it attract candidates to come back home.
"My feeling around that is that if you increase the amount of companies here, if you increase the awareness that it is a place with a lot of jobs, you're going to attract candidates into it and you're going to increase the number of kids that are interested in the career field. From the long-term perspective things that are good for the local economy are good for us," he said.
"I take a long-term perspective. Sure, competition can make things tighter in the jobs market but the long term benefits are very significant," he added.
Newry-based capital markets software and consulting firm First Derivatives is set to take on 80 graduates and 40 experienced hires this year.
Three years ago the company committed to creating 359 core consulting jobs and is on its way to hitting that target. But recruitment director Shane Mullholland agrees it is becoming hard to find enough C# and Java developers in Ireland.
"We are for the first time hiring Greek, Cypriot and Spanish graduates, which on one hand is a good thing because we become a more cosmopolitan organisation. But from a business NI perspective, we're just not finding enough of what we're looking for. It is frustrating," he said.
"I am just back from Barcelona where they are awash with technology graduates who can't find jobs. We've hired out of the university of Waterloo in Toronto, some of the US universities, the University of Capetown and Stellenbosch in South Africa. We've also hired out of Australia and as we're now just kicking off a Singapore venture, we're looking at Chinese students studying in Northern Ireland who want to go back to China again. The bulk of that 80 will come from traditional Irish and British universities but we're widening the net."
While Mullholland notes progress is being made he says the high drop out rate for Computer Science courses across Ireland is still a major concern.
"People move into less programming focused computer courses because they want to stay technical, but they are not programmers. They are not Java or C++ programmers. There is a significant deficit. For those that do make it they are going to get a lot of offers. That's only going to increase. We have law grads wanting to work for free to get their foot in the door but the flip side is that computer science grads are telling us they have four or five offers and they are going to take their time to pick the right one or that we're not offering enough," he said.
First Derivatives have traditionally hired a lot of people with three to seven years' experience who were young and prepared to travel internationally to work in its New York, Toronto and London offices. As the company matures, and having opened a product development centre in Belfast, it is finding roles for those people with 10 years' experience who want a settled role in Northern Ireland – putting it in more direct competition with the likes of Citi.
"It is a bit of a double edged sword for us. We are an indigenous company that has done well in this capital markets space and were happy to endorse the idea of making Northern Ireland a capital markets centre of excellence. But the challenge is we're scrapping in the same pool for talent," he said.
"There's definitely a disconnect between jobs in the marketplace and a clear understanding of those opportunities in schools."
THE APPLIANCE OF SCIENCE
Professor Richard Millar, Dean of the Faculty of Computing & Engineering at University of Ulster says that extensive work is being done to address that disconnect. Better information at school level about what computer science degree entails, as well as the rewards at the end, have already seen drop out rates go from 17% in 2006/07 to 9% in 2011/12.
"The drop out rate has been consistently dropping. That has been down to a lot of work explaining to students what computer science is. When students have stayed with us our success rate is actually one of the best in the UK. But we had a high early leavers dropout rate people who got into it, quickly realised it was about problem solving mathematics and wasn't for them. Now we explain the nature of the course better," he said.
"If I go back five years we would have been in clearing for computing courses. Therefore there were places there and people who hadn't got anything else saw it and thought they'd give it a try. That didn't help anybody. That's changed. The demand has increased again this year and students have to think carefully, they can't drift into it."
Prof Millar believes that the new A-Level in software systems development that will be taught from September will also help.
"ICT as a subject in school has done us a lot of damage. People who were good at ICT thought they would be good at computer science, which doesn't always follow. That didn't help the retention rate," he notes.
"ICT in school is a lot about using spreadsheets and powerpoint, so the really good students looked at it and thought there was no challenge in computing, they thought that's what computer science was. That hasn't helped either of the universities. We do get some really good students, but we're not getting them in the same numbers as go into medicine and law and accounting. A lot of them were switched off ICT in schools. The new A-Level is much more aligned with industry needs and attuned to the degree, which will help us attract more of the brighter people into computer science as a career."
University of Ulster has also introduced a generalist masters course aimed at getting graduates into the IT sphere, with 40 students taking part this year. It has also developed "earn-as-you-learn" scheme with Kainos Software to bring part-time students into the IT workforce.
The professor adds: "It is a strategy we are exploring with other employers at present and could be another part of the solution because there are no restrictions on the number of part-time students universities can take."