Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are the new must-do subjects to keep Northern Ireland competitive. Business Telegraph examines how students are responding to the challenge
When overseas investors are looking for destinations to set up business there are a few key ingredients on their checklist.
Proximity to a sizeable market is one, tax rates another but one of the overriding criteria which potential investors place at the heart of their decision making process is the availability of high-quality skilled labour.
Northern Ireland has long had a reputation for having one of the best education systems anywhere in the world and that stands it in good stead when we're on show to potential foreign direct investors. But making sure we're producing enough workers with the skills required by an economy which changes its needs with the seasons is an altogether different task.
That's particularly true when it comes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, subjects which can easily fall out of fashion. Our own Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) calls this 'STEM fatigue'.
While not a major issue in a cultural sense, a workforce lacking in STEM skills can become a major impediment if, like Northern Ireland, a country is trying to attract investment from companies whose bread and butter products demand high levels of exactly those types of skills. And it's also a huge issue for indigenous companies involved in STEM-related businesses trying to expand and compete on an increasingly competitive global market.
A 2009 report, STEM Review, carried out by DEL, found that the uptake of physical sciences at A-level in Northern Ireland is declining at a time when other UK regions are responding to recommendations of the Sainsbury Review of Science and Innovation Policies of Government which advocated an increase. What's more between 10% and 18% of STEM students at local universities drop out at the end of the first year and of those that do graduate, 26% migrate away from Northern Ireland.
That's not great news when we're trying to encourage companies like tyre pressure monitor maker Schrader Electronics to expand or to persuade large US manufacturers to set up base here instead of heading to the Republic.
In an attempt to address this shrinkage of local STEM talent, not-for-profit education charity Sentinus has been working hard with local school children and students.
It goes into schools and colleges to run programmes with over 56,000 students each year to try and spark an interest in STEM subjects and identify new talent. While that might sound like a difficult task, it seems that presented in the right way, STEM subjects are loved by an eager audience.
A trip to the Sentinus Young Innovator of the Year Exhibition at the Odyssey Arena last week certainly provides ample proof of just that.
On show were the culmination of year-long science and technology projects from both primary and secondary schools, all of which were hugely impressive and some of which have already attracted commercial interest.
The enthusiasm around the packed hall from the students was infectious and certainly suggests the work of Sentinus is paying off.
One international company with a large base in Northern Ireland is wholeheartedly behind the organisation's work. Fujitsu, which employs around 700 people in the province, works with Sentinus to promote stem subjects, a move which by its own admission has a certain level of self interest but also benefits the wider economy.
Nicole France, head of Fujitsu's market intelligence, came over from her base in London to attend the event.
"The students that go into the fields from this programme are the kind of people we will hire," she said.
"Sentinus is an incredibly impressive organisation. It's a great example of the public, private and third sector working together for the same aim." France should know, hailing as she does from California, the home of Silicon Valley, and she places the work of the organisation as some of the best she has seen from any region in the UK. Brian Campbell, chief executive of Sentinus, brushes aside the compliments and said there's still a huge amount of work to be done if Northern Ireland is to pull itself out of these recessionary times.
But he believes that focusing on promoting STEM subjects will be the catalyst to recovery.
"A lack of STEM knowledge is the biggest obstacle facing our economy," he said.
"It's a prime need and one we should continue addressing."
And he concedes the downturn in the economy has helped point potential lawyers and accountants toward science and technology.
"Over the last few years it's become clear the professions don't guarantee a job. "Pupils have started to look at alternatives and realise that jobs in STEM companies are going to be well paid."
Not only that but educational establishments are becoming much more aware of the importance of STEM subjects and Sentinus itself has now worked with 93% of all Northern Ireland schools.
The brilliant ideas and talent on show at the Odyssey last week pay testament to this and if these young innovators continue into business with such flair and enthusiasm then we're sure to be in good hands in the coming years.
Future is bright for winning school scientists
Winners: Henrik Brusecke, a 17-year-old student at St Columba’s Comprehensive School in Donegal, was awarded the title of ‘Sentinus Young Innovator’ for his innovative ICT workload management programme. Other STEM winners at the event included: Adam Keilthy (Sutton Park School) — the UUJ Award to attend the International Sustainable World Engineering, Energy and Environment Project Olympiad in Houston, Texas; John Neill (Down High School, Downpatrick) — NI Young Engineer Overall Winner; Saoirse Nash (St Mary’s College, Londonderry) — NI Young Scientist Overall Winner; and Lucy Mulholland (Grosvenor Grammar School, Belfast) NI Young Scientist (Senior Award (17-19)
Prodigy John discovers the key to success
At 13 years old, John Neill is one of the youngest winners of a Sentinus Young Innovators Award. The Down High School student has designed an innovative device for forgetful keyholders, called Key Call. Utilising GSM technology, users will be able to use their mobile or landline telephone to ‘call’ their lost keys. Entered for the Northern Ireland Young Engineer award in the junior category, John went on to be named the Northern Ireland Young Engineers overall winner and also received the First Derivatives award for commercial potential. This means a combined prize money total of £325. John’s father says some companies have already expressed interest in Key Call and John himself says his ambition is “to see the product on shelves and people buying it”.