Allstate’s Bro McFerran. The IT industry has massive economic growth potential for Northern Ireland – having the right skills is all that’s constraining us

Gary: Bro, you’re running the largest IT company in Northern Ireland. You employ and continue to employ people with high levels of skills. That must be an on-going challenge?

Bro: Similar to a lot of other IT companies, we at Allstate need .Net, Java, Tibco, Middleware, all those frameworks, and we need Premier League people, whatever analogy you want to make. We need rock stars for our industry.

The problem is you get a sort of revolving door for these good people…but I suppose the only good thing about that, is that if you can keep then in Northern Ireland…it’s great. But I’ve recently seen some companies from the South coming in, offering top dollar, all sorts of deals to get them on board…and if we lose these people to Northern Ireland, it’s going to be to all of our detriment.

So, I think what we need to do is, seriously think how we upskill, re-skill people. What we do in this building here is, we identify what are key talents, the people that are really worth investing in. We used to have a system here where, if somebody wasn’t doing so well, they were trained on new skills. But we quickly came to the conclusion that…hang on, we shouldn’t be investing the key, strategic skills, in people that aren’t able to contribute properly to the project – it’s the guys who are the heroes in the projects that need to get the additional skills added on to them so they become the people we continue to build the organisation on.

Gary: Actually there’s been quite a bit of research on this which shows that, it’s a waste of time training people in areas that are not their strengths. Where you really want to put your training budget is in people’s strengths and make them even better.

Bro: And you see, the message that I would like to send out clearly to the government departments and agencies, is that they need to invest in those sorts of skills – it’s not just getting graduates up to speed. They need to make sure we have that knowledge layer with the experienced people, who can put it to good use.

We have seen recently where budgets have become under constraint and some of those training pockets have dried up – which is not good for Northern Ireland industry. But we also need to make sure that the money we do spend in re-training, upskilling, is spent exactly where it’s required and that we get the rights sort of results from that.

Now, because we’re one of the largest IT companies in Northern Ireland, we’re the biggest target for any potential inward investors. So, I’m very conscious when I’m talking to inward investors – and I do, I don’t discourage them, I’m a great believer in the sort of halo effect you get from this – I say to them, if you come here, you’ve got to be good corporate citizens and do the training programmes. We’ve trained a lot of the people, some with very little IT background. If I look at the 1900 people that we have, I’d say at least four or five hundred of them have come in with non-IT degrees. We’ve nurtured  those people into the industry and yes, it’s starting to bear fruit now, but I think if other companies are prepared to do that, and be good corporate citizens, then that is a good model for Northern Ireland going forward.

And I not only welcome those companies, I would try and help them in any way I can to try and set up their business here, because I think it’s going to be good for all of us in the end of the day.

Gary: The IT and software industry has huge economic potential for Northern Ireland, but we never approach it in a really strategic way, so that the inward investment and local investment and the training and the education system are all joined up – and if we need to do special things like bring in people on special visas or whatever to get people in key areas, I mean all of that… with a strategic view to say, look, this industry could be a growth engine, a much bigger growth engine for us…could we ever get there?

Bro: We could get to that point. But we haven’t done it; we’ve done it in spurts. What has happened is, various people have seen that the IT industry is burgeoning, and it gets a lot of attention,  whether or not it’s strategic or just tactical…then all of a sudden if there’s downturn in the IT sector, they take their foot of the gas and then it’s, “Yeah well, I told you so, this IT sector’s not going to work out after all”. And that is not a good place to be in.

Gary: Everything seems to be in silos – you’ve got the universities doing what they do, FE does its thing, DEL has its priorities and budgets and Invest NI the same – and there’s not much continuity, no cohesion, how could we ever produce that? Is that a political matter, or how do we get things joined up?

Bro: There’s a lot of the parties need to come round the table and agree with that. There is a certain arrogance in some parts of Higher Education that says, we’re the ones responsible for turning out these type of people. FE have their role to play as well…but I think we really need people with an IT vocation, who really enjoy it. Too often it’s a young person’s 2nd or 3rd choice. We need to cultivate the spirit that we can create something that has massive potential here – just look at the example of First Derivatives, which is an example of a very good, top-tier company that can be developed out of Northern Ireland – and, or course, you can’t ignore the fact that companies like Allstate and Liberty and Citi and New York Stock Exchange and those sorts of companies are producing a lot of really good, well paid jobs in this economy and are making a massive contribution.

As well as that, I like to think that, in the way that Queens and UU have spawned the odd business project – and probably not enough of them! – I think you get the same thing coming out of businesses such as ours – people who get knowledge, who see that there are niche skills that they can put to good effect, and you get spin-out companies from that too.

I call this the Boucher Road syndrome – somebody once set up a car showroom in Boucher Road and I’m sure they worried about their competitors setting up either side of them, but now it’s a honey pot for car buyers. And far from this competition doing their business harm, it’s done the opposite – it’s improved it. And that theory works in the IT sector – I don’t look on a big inward investor as a competitor. I see that as a potential for more cooperation, collaboration and getting more momentum behind what it is we want to do as a region. And it adds to the credibility. Invest NI, credit where credit’s due, did a fabulous job over the last 10-15 years in attracting mobile IT jobs to Northern Ireland, in the face of very steep competition, particularly from the Republic and the other UK regions. So  we’ve done well, and we need to build on that.

I’m old enough to remember when, back in the old days of the Software Federation, we said, “Is it reasonable to set a target of 4,000 jobs in the IT sector?” Well, I’m now in the situation where I can say that, had the skills been available, we probably could have done that in Allstate, never mind Northern Ireland.

But we need to be aware that we have growth issues. We would be a bigger company if there were more skills available here. I’ve no doubt the same thing is true of all the other inward investors. If we had really good skills here, we would be the first port of call for any development. And our ability to get those skills is the only thing that’s constraining us.

So it has to be the focus.

Gary: So how would you ever get that level of cohesion between the
relevant departments and agencies, educational institutions and the industry? You’re on various working groups involving DEL – presumably that’s  a good vehicle in that department. But that sort of wider cohesion, trying to promote & enable a more strategic approach to Northern Ireland and this IT opportunity – how would you ever make that happen?

Bro: I think it requires more than just me and my peers in the industry carping from the sidelines. We do need to get a vision created that this can happen and we need a champion for that vision. We in the industry are, very single-mindedly, trying to deliver the visions we have for our own organizations, but I’m a strong believer that the whole of education in Northern Ireland need to be overhauled. We’re maintaining three or four different education systems…we don’t need integrated education, we just need education full stop. The whole education system needs overhauling…if we want to grow this economy the way we want to grow it, all of our educational output need to be more focused.

Somebody told me the other day there are 200 people training as pharmacists in the University of Ulster and I think there’s only a requirement for about 50 a year here – so why are we directing resources at training those people to become unemployed pharmacists?

What we need to do is to say –if we have a buoyant IT sector, these are the sustainable numbers going forward, so therefore that needs to feed back into all the educational system –  FE, HE, schools, right down to primary school level. We really need to get people focused on this.

I’ve often said, it’s far better to get someone to come out of education with a business plan than a A level certificate. But we aren’t nurturing entrepreneurial skills, we aren’t highlighting entrepreneurial success. If you look at the US, no matter how you want to criticize their education system, there’s no doubt that the kids that come out of their education system come out brimming with confidence. And I don’t think we have enough of that here.

It’s changing slightly, but it’s still got a long way to go. If we did all of that, and we had a programme for government and a programme for economic development that was highlighting where the sectors are, the sort of skills that we need and that all fed back to the education system, then…

Now, you’re asking – what are the chances of doing that? I think – not in my lifetime! But at the same time, I think we can get closer.

Gary: Are we looking for a political champion, that the industry can work with and together we can try and promote this agenda?

Bro: Unfortunately – you see this a lot in Northern Ireland – if some visionary comes out with a plan for the education system, one side will say their piece and the other side will say theirs and there’s always some sinister force at work. So until we get  rid of all of that baggage here, it’s going to be hard.

Gary: So, what does the IT industry needs from the education system?

Bro: I think what we need to do is make sure that it’s all connected right through the education system. We’ve done a lot of work here on schools programmes like Time to Compute, and trying to get more girls into computing and science based subjects – and that’s been very successful. Even this week, one of our guys is developing a publication to go round all the schools, which is designed for 8-12 year olds, getting them to design their own websites. That’s definitely the sort of thing we need to be doing.

But we also need to make sure we connect all the dots from education, through FE, through HE and on through to the workplace, because, y’know, we’ve suffered from it as have other employers. You get new graduates in and only about 20% of what they’ve learned is relevant to what you are doing, so you have to retrain those people. It would be great if we had a seamless path through education into the workplace and people were coming out with oven-ready skills that we can put to work straight away.

Now, I wouldn’t also rule out the possibility of us doing apprenticeships, and maybe using that as a route. I just think we need to be more creative about how we attract people to the industry. There is no doubt about it – there’s a worldwide shortage of IT skills. It’s a global issue, not just here in Northern Ireland.

If we can get the right quality of education here and produce the right quality of IT people, quite frankly, I don’t think Invest NI would have anything to do! Because all of those global FDI projects are going to come here as their  first choice anyway.

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About Gary Burnett

Fabrio's Gary Burnett has many years experience in the ICT industry, working in Ireland, the UK, Europe, India and the US. He helps technology companies change and grow.
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