Ladies and Gentlemen of the Class of 2011…
If I could offer you only one tip for the future, it would be skills. The long term benefits of skills have been proved by social scientists whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience… I will dispense this advice now.
OK, enough with the Baz Lurhmann tribute. The CAO application deadline is around the corner and, with all the talk of unemployment and Ireland on the brink, you are probably very worried about picking a course that will help you land a rewarding career and avoid having to emigrate.
2011 in perspective
This may sound funny, but you are a lucky generation, probably the luckiest generation of school-leavers Ireland has ever had. If you take a step back and think about it for a minute, it should be pretty clear that you are much luckier than, say, the Classes of 2005, 2006 or 2007. They picked their college courses at the height of the boom, often without reference to the underlying skills it would give them, because there was a general feeling that there would be jobs for graduates out the other side, no matter what their degree. As one particular Fine Arts Graduate recently discovered, jobs are never guaranteed and they are graduating into one of the toughest labour markets Ireland has ever seen and with qualifications for sectors that are in serious contraction.
You are also luckier than your counterparts from the 1990s and early 2000s. I know what you’re thinking: all of these were able to get jobs easily when they finished their college courses, so how are we luckier than they are? Put it this way: when you get around to buying houses, ten to fifteen years from now, it will be at sustainable prices. The vast majority of people who finished school during the 1990s bought during the boom and are now in negative equity, many in €100,000 or more of negative equity. The bulk of them have mortgages, but there are plenty who don’t have jobs. If you gave them the chance to start all over again, there wouldn’t be too many who’d refuse.
And you are also luckier than your parents’ generation, the people who finished school in the 1970s and 1980s. Large chunks of every class at this time emigrated. Most people didn’t go to college. And whether they went to college or not, they simply didn’t have the range of opportunities that people have had since Ireland opened up, which happened around about the time Take That became big, Meatloaf topped the charts and you guys were born (OK, now I’m starting to feel old!).
To show just what a huge change this is in such a short space of time, the graph below shows the percentage of people in a particular age bracket that have no more than lower secondary education, across a few EU countries including Ireland. Take a look at Ireland, the green line. It goes from one of the highest rates of “No more than Junior Cert” in the 65-69 age group (that’s the generation that would have sat their Leaving Cert, if they got that far, in the early 1960s) down to the lowest rate in the 20-24 age group. One in ten young Irish people does not complete their Leaving Cert, a rate that is half the rate for our EU-15 peers. Not only that, our higher education figures are equally impressive. About one third of people under 30 in the EU have higher education qualifications. In Ireland, the proportion of people under 30 with higher education is closer to a half, the highest in the EU.
You guys are lucky because you are the first generation to see Ireland for what it is and pick your future accordingly: a small open economy completely dependent on its ability to sell its talent on international markets, but with plenty of opportunity for those with the right skills. Yes, there is lots of unemployment in Ireland. Yes, there is a lot of debt and until the time you guys graduate in 2016 there will be tough Budget after tough Budget.
Getting the right skills
But you – and only you and the classes behind you – can sidestep all that, because you’ve a clean slate. Ireland is attracting a record number of foreign companies at the moment, companies that are coming here and often can’t find all the skills they need in Ireland and so bring other workers here. People in Ireland are unemployed not because there is no demand for workers, but because there is demand for workers with skills a, b and c, while those unemployed have skills x, y and z. As mentioned at the start, it’s all about having the right skills.
I’m going to generalise hugely here and say there are two types of Leaving Cert student: there are those who are interested in how things work, numbers, maths and the sciences, and then there are those that are interested in ideas, words, languages and the humanities. The future in Ireland is bright for both. Below are two areas that are only starting their growth phase, globally and even more importantly in Ireland.
If you’re interested in numbers, the huge growth area in Ireland is in analytics. This essentially means statistics made exciting but you don’t necessarily have to take a Degree in Statistics to be top of the queue for analytics jobs. Essentially you want a course that teaches you to be rigorous – to follow a chain of thought and logic to see not just the obvious consequence but the non-obvious ones too. This could be for example MSISS in Trinity, or it could be a Maths degree. It could be Computer Science or Economics (especially with some solid mathematical grounding) or even a strong Philosophy degree. And aside from analytics, computer programming, computer games design and the life sciences have been giving graduates solid jobs for years.
If you’re interested in words and ideas rather than numbers, the huge growth area in Ireland is linguistics and localisation. Google, for example, employ hundreds of people in Dublin who make sure their services are seamlessly multilingual. As the “value add” in IT goes from hardware and software on to the web and into real-time, Ireland is well placed: established IT giants such as IBM, Microsoft and Apple have large operations here, while with new giants such as Google, Facebook and LinkedIn having their European HQ here, Ireland is probably the hottest place for digital content outside of Silicon Valley. It is hugely important though that you come well equipped: this means probably some mix of business skills and language skills, not necessarily in the same degree. On languages, you’ve got to be fluent for it to count, honestly. If you are the product of a Gaelscoil, you may have a slight advantage here: you’re already used to thinking in more than one language. Even if you haven’t particularly shone at any language so far, do not despair: four solid years of work, including for example spending summers abroad living the language, is more than enough to become fluent.
If you don’t take my word for it, this is word-for-word from the IDA Ireland’s end of year statement earlier this month: “IDA client companies are actively recruiting candidates who are technology competent with engineering, mathematics, science and international financial and multi-lingual skills.” There really is something for everyone.
The fundamental point is to work hard and take nothing for granted. Ultimately, no-one owes any of us a job. We all need to earn our way through our careers (which for you guys will probably last until the age of 80 but that’s a discussion for another day!). College years can be fun – probably the most fun you’ll have, as you’ve a full set of rights but not a full set of responsibilities – but for an education, not a holiday, it’s also hard work. To do well, it’s every bit as tough as the Leaving Cert.
As we started primary school, we all learnt about jobs for the first time and we mainly learnt about the ones we saw around us at that age: teacher, postman, shopkeeper, doctor, bus driver and so on. By secondary school, the idea of what a job can be widens to include things like journalist, lawyer, engineer, scientist or accountant. But even now, your idea of what people do is still probably dominated by a minority of the jobs out there.
As you stand on the threshold of third level education, remember that the vast majority of people don’t work in jobs we know about. In fact, most of your career will be probably spent in a career which doesn’t exist yet. So please, make sure you pick a course in college that will give you transferable skills and a lifelong career.
Class of 2011 – you and the classes following you are probably the luckiest Irish generation ever. Seize the day!