Ronan Lyons | Personal Website
Ronan Lyons | Personal Website

A letter to the Class of 2011, Ireland’s luckiest generation

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.

Percentage of the population with no more than lower secondary education, by age cohort, 2010
Percentage of the population with no more than lower secondary education, by age cohort, 2010

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!

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      • Claudine Innes ,

        I have started reading your blog because I live in Spain and sell Spanish equities for a living. I am interested in how you irish see your challenges and what that tells me about ours. We may have better banks, but we sure have a much tougher road ahead on the skills front.
        As a parent of four, including threee young teenagers, I loved the Baz Luhrmann tribute which I hadn’t come across before.
        Many thanks,

        • Stephen Hamilton ,

          I totally agree. Great career advice. Hopefully some prospective college goers will heed your advice and positivity.
          However I think the next generation is always the luckiest generation. Thats whats I’ll be telling my kids and what my old man told me and his old man told him….

          • Ronan Lyons ,

            Hi Claudine,
            Many thanks for signing up to the blog and for your comment. It will be great to get a Spanish perspective on things, as only by comparing and contrasting with elsewhere can we all understand where we stand.

            • John Mack ,

              Studies in the USA have shown that, over time, those who took jobs (often at not great pay) in bust times have done better than those who took jobs in boom times (at inflated pay).

              I think you need to emphasize some specific points on how to save and how to make sound financial decisions,

              Save: Anyway you can, but make it regular and consistent, however modest. Look into automatic deductions. … Also, DRIP plans for US stocks are a great way to do well over time. With a DRIP you buy stocks directly from a list of reliable companies, with no broker or fees involved. Bloomberg online sells an excellent book on this. I’m doing this with my modest retirement income.

              Buying a House: Buy to live in, not to “invest.” Years and years ago some of my more prosperous relatives in Ireland bought houses they loved in locations they loved year, not cheap at the time, but cheap enough. In the recent boom they were offered 4-8 million for these houses, all bought for less than 400,000. They refused all offers, loving the houses and also feeling guilty about selling so high since they knew the whole thing was a ridiculous bubble. The houses could still sell at multiples of what they bought them for, but why? You’d only have to spend to get something comparable. My farmer relatives were also offered ridiculous amounts for their land but they had no intention of alienating ancestral land that they held on to through the English occupation.

              Values: Prudence/foresight as to consequences of actions; justice/doing right by others in a prudent way; fortitude/endurance in hard times/rising to meet challenges; temperance/mercy/avoiding extremes but being generous in a prudent way. These are the virtues of a good civil society. Live them, teach them through example. Stress these virtues and avoid the excesses of consumerism and materialism while respecting and appreciating material needs and pleasures.

              • John Mack ,

                A comment on your chart showing educational levels in various countries. Notice that prosperous Germany is not overloaded with college degrees. Why? They have a parallel education system stressing the acquisition of specialized skills through teaching and apprenticeship. I had an Irish uncle trained in Germany to become an engineer under this system. He was a superb problem solver, much respected.

                Perhaps Ireland needs to develop such a system as part of a reform of its economy. The Jesuits have run schools along these lines in Spain. They also run one of the two highly respected MBA schools. The other is also under religious (that is, private) auspices. But in Germany the training system is a joint venture between the government and industry.

                • Laura ,

                  There is a good point there, but to some extent what tends to happen in a recession, as I recall from my own class in the 90s, graduates tend to bump out lower skilled workers for more basic jobs. They do, however, often have a much better chance of promotion as things improve but some graduates face glass ceilings in lower skilled workplaces if they are working for a system of low skilled managers who “got lucky” in the boom and may at best be unable to appreciate or at worst resent graduates working for them.

                  One thing I noticed in the boom was how many very low skilled people managed to get to very inflated salaries out of sheer neck. In fact in the last proper permanent job I had, almost all of the lowest paid workers were graduates, whereas the managers were mostly non graduates but very very confident. No wonder they lost almost all the business with a loss of close to 100 jobs.

                  Grads definitely will though, have an edge in terms of competitiveness over many older workers who may be less flexible, lower skilled, less willing to adapt and stuck in a location due to mortgage commitments.

                  • Clare ,

                    Great advice Ronan. I almost wish I was young enough to ue your advice. Almost! 🙂

                    • Ronan Lyons ,

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                        • Peter Keenan ,

                          I am involved with the MSc in Business Analytics Our graduates have little trouble finding jobs, but we are by no means overburdened with applications. Young people really haven’t realised the sheer range of jobs involving statistics, maths in business. The gloom and doom is overrated and is very much related to what you chose to study.

                          • Sean McGarraghy ,

                            Ronan, it is good to see you have the view that there is hope out there.

                            On your comment about Analytics: I am Programme Director of the UCD MSc Business Analytics at the Smurfit Graduate School of Business. There is a lot talked about Ireland needing to become a knowledge economy: I have believed it for a long time, as we are a small but open economy with few natural resources but perfectly situated geographically and culturally between the US and Europe; we also have growing links with China.

                            My colleagues and I in the UCD Centre for Business Analytics have seen the growing importance of Analytics for some time now. We too feel that it is essential to produce a cohort of people able to solve problems and think logically and analytically. This is why in 2007-08 we redesigned the then Master of Management Science and renamed it to Business Analytics. The HEA have shown how importantly they rate this MSc by subsidising its fees under the National Development Plan.

                            Our intake of students has quadrupled and about 60% are part time. Some of our intake are from courses such as the Trinity MSIS you mention, but over half would come from an engineering background, e.g., Civil Engineers wishing to reposition their careers. They all have quantitative and computer skills, and a wish to leverage those skills to solve business and other practical problems.

                            I agree that Analytics is a major growth area of the future, both in Ireland and globally. You may know that in Ireland IBM are creating 200 new jobs in the next 3 years, Accenture 100 and AON 50, among others. Surveys of business leaders, both here and abroad, consistently indicate 80% or so of executives intend to spend more on analytics in future, even in a recession. They are coming to realise that they have hidden value in their own data, could they but access it: they could then make decisions more grounded, and less on a whim.

                            Others promoting Analytics include the not-for-profit Analytics Institute (, which is Irish-based but globally active. They aim to fill a gap for companies too small to have a dedicated analytics team, but aware they need some expertise in this area.

                            • Ronan Lyons ,

                              Hi Peter, Sean,
                              Many thanks for those comments and for the links. It’s great to get some thoughts “from the front lines” so to speak.


                              • Peter Keenan ,


                                One issue which we perceive in Ireland is that employers have jobs, and expect universities to produce graduates to meet these needs, which is fair enough. But universities can only produce graduates if people chose to do the courses. It is difficult for universities to convey the range of jobs available to school leavers or undergraduates who have little idea of the range of things that real companies do. Quite frankly, if you say that your programme has loads of jobs, people don’t believe you. Government and business needs to do more to convey general information about growing sectors in the Irish economy, otherwise we’ll have a “jobs crisis” at the same time as vacancies in these sectors.

                                • Treasa ,


                                  somehow I missed this first time round.

                                  One comment I would make is that – speaking as someone fluent in both French and German – language skills on their own are not adequate to source a job. You must have additional skills to offer.

                                  I’m unwilling to make a blanket comment now because my experience in the job market 10 years ago is surely not relevant to recruitment nowadays, but frankly, language skills were not deemed particularly valuable in this country at the time, and many of the language specific positions in this country can and do demand native speakers. Any time I have checked salary levels for jobs where language skills are a desired central component, they have left a certain amount to be desired.

                                  • jonny ,

                                    If you want a job in the future it’s hard to go wrong with anything medical or biomedical related and pay is relatively good too plus the skills will be in demand worldwide.

                                    • jonny ,

                                      I have learned a foreign language from long residence in a foreign country. Foreign languages on their own are insufficient, you need a core skill. They are really just the icing on the cake. It also takes a lot of effort and time to get proficient.
                                      However I would recommend everybody to try and get fluency in one foreign language if they can, but you can also do it my migrating to the country of choice.

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