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Opinion Have a positive impact on Ireland’s society and economy – choose a STEM career

Leaving Cert students: consider courses in science, technology, engineering and maths. They’ll give you transferable, mobile skills that are needed in almost every sector.

ENTERING THE EXAM period can be a difficult time for second-level students and their parents. With a host of diverse and varying options, they may feel overwhelmed by choice, conflicting information or indeed educational, peer or family pressures when making decision about their Leaving Certificate subjects or when filling in their CAO applications.

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), through its SFI Discover education and outreach programme, has developed Smart Futures – a partnership between Government, industry and educators to provide students, parents and guidance counsellors with important career supports in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

A positive impact on society

A major part of the SFI Discover remit is to focus on encouraging young people and their influencers to explore and interact with STEM, with a view to considering careers in that space and thus having a positive impact on Ireland’s society and economy.

Globally, the demand for graduates with STEM qualifications in sectors such as pharma, chemical, medical devices, information and communications technology (ICT) and energy is growing rapidly. Since 2011, there have been over 15,000 jobs announced in Ireland (over 80 jobs per week) in ICT. Today, there are more vacancies in STEM sectors than graduates to fill them; higher education programmes meet only 60 per cent of the demand for graduates.

This skills gap is not unique to Ireland – this week the European Union has estimated that on average 47% of European citizens have insufficient skills for the job requirements of the digital economy and it is estimated that by 2015 there will be a shortage of up to 864,000 ICT professionals across Europe. However, we are making progress. Ireland was recently named one of the top five countries for research by leading global scientific publication Nature and is ranked in the top ten countries for global innovation. Nine out of ten of the world’s top pharmaceutical companies are located in Ireland and all of the top 10 multinational technology companies have a significant presence here. However, to continue to be globally competitive, it is important that we equip our graduates with the knowledge and skills to succeed.

Over the next three years, Smart Futures aims to deliver a 10% increase in take-up of STEM subjects at second and third level. The collaboration of educators, industry and policy-makers is key to achieve this.

The benefits of working in a STEM career

Smart Futures is showcasing the benefits of working in a STEM career, demonstrating how these jobs can be both fulfilling and financially rewarding. According to the US Department of Commerce, STEM workers earn up to 26 per cent more than those in non-STEM careers. Smart Futures has already worked with over 50 STEM related organisations, training over 400 volunteers to deliver their career stories to post-primary students nationwide. Some 427 school visits have already taken place, reaching more than 15,000 second-level students in the current academic year.

Smart Futures is proud to work with ambassadors to address misconceptions students might have about STEM careers. These champions include the Clare All-Ireland hurling champion, Shane O’Donnell, who is studying genetics in University College Cork and Dr Arlene O’Neill, a former Dublin Rose of Tralee, who is a physicist and Science Communicator at Trinity College Dublin.

STEM skills will be crucial in equipping future generations with the aptitude for problem solving and critical thinking. For students sitting exams next week, courses in science, technology, engineering and maths will give them transferable, mobile skills that are needed in almost every growing sector. For those students who choose to engage with the exciting opportunities in STEM, the future is bright.

Dr Ruth Freeman is Director of Strategy and Communications at Science Foundation Ireland.

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