Rob McConnell, Chairman of Momentum – 20,000 new IT jobs

Rob MomentumGary: Rob, you’re the chair of Momentum. What exactly is Momentum?

Rob: Momentum is a long standing a trade association that represents organisations and individuals operating within the digital sector in Northern Ireland. We represent a large range of companies, some very small and others very large, either indigenous or Foreign Direct Investors. Momentum is a member organization and as such our members expect us to represent them in terms of industry specific issues that they face. These issues vary widely in nature but fall into areas such as taxation, skills, funding, business development opportunities and procurement.

We’ve recently re-positioned ourselves as an organisation, after putting ourselves firmly under the microscope.  We asked ourselves what the sector really needs, what it will take to get there and how we as an industry representative body can support this process. We’ve altered our tag line to “the voice of the digital sector” in Northern Ireland as we represent a broad church. And we’ve set out our stall with a new manifesto which focuses on 3 specific areas – skills, markets and funding.

Gary: So, what sort of companies are members and how representative is Momentum of the industry?

momentumRob:  I should draw a differentiation here in terms of representation. Our role is to work in the best interests of the sector as a whole which equates to an estimated 28,000 individuals which is different to the number of paying members we have.  Many of the companies in Northern Ireland are small businesses and our sector is no different; but we also represent large organizations, including the FDIs such as Citi and Liberty IT, organizations which employ in the hundreds, if not thousands of people. So, for example, we have John Healey, Head of Technology at Citi, which has over 800 people, on our board. So we like to think that we represent a broad selection of the type of companies that are operating in the sector, and that face the same type of challenges. Of course an FDI company faces different challenges than a small 3 or 4 man band organization. Skills may not be an issue for this sort of small organization – funding  or trying to do more business locally or in export markets may be more their priority. Whereas for a Citi, their primary concern is getting the quality of people at the right price.

Gary: But Momentum is interested in all of these companies?

Rob: Absolutely, we are hugely inclusive in trying to represent the sector. That presents its own challenges and our board meetings are typically focused on trying to discuss issues that affect the industry in general..

Gary: Presumably a company has to pay to be a member of Momentum? What do they get for their money? Let’s say it is a small company – and every penny counts these days for everybody – what do they get for their money?

businessRob: There are a range of things a member can draw upon. It ranges from being able to attend knowledge events, events that allow them to develop a deeper understanding of a particular issue or technology; it might be support in terms of training or mentoring from our executive team; it might be signposting for the right grant or pot of money to help them move their business faster; it could also be lobbying on their behalf with government, to try and effect broader policy issues. We even offer our members free help with their PR if they are launching a new product or making an announcement, as our independent consultant Barry Turley has recently helped Kainos, Automated Intelligence and Allstate with recent announcements.

We typically have very close, personal relationships with industry. Our team is open to being contacted, they’re happy to meet companies on specific issues. Another area is around business and trade – where we try and help take local organizations into new markets, in terms of trade expos, or with organizations like InterTradeIreland, where we can look at cross-border initiatives, or where we can look at bringing academia and industry together to further innovation and research. So that really falls into 4 main areas – innovation, which is at the heart of our industry, and then the three areas which our new manifesto focuses on – opening up new markets, opening up new funding opportunities and developing new skills and talent..

Gary: Rob, presumably there are some companies in the technology industry which are not currently members of Momentum, but given the advantages you’ve just mentioned, they might want to. How can they go about that?

Rob: It’s very simple. We’ve an online presence – www.momentumni.org and we’re easily contactable. In the first instance people can contact our membership secretary, Sharon Moody to understand the process for enrolling, which is very simple. The cost is not very high at all for a company to come into the fold and support us to enable us to continue to work on behalf of the sector.

Gary: You’ve mentioned the Momentum Manifesto. A manifesto for a political party is where it puts out its ideas, sets out its stall, says what its vision is, what it’s going to do. Is that what Momentum’s manifesto is all about?

manifesto-definition-purpleRob:  Our manifesto is all about some headline themes. At the top is our vision to support the creation of 20,00 new jobs within the next 5 years. The industry currently sits at 28,000 people. We expect that to go to over 50,000, if we can get the climate right. It’s down to the basics of supply and demand. We really need to make sure the supply is there and to make sure that the demand is sustained.  The Manifesto is just the first step in a process to ultimately drive an overarching ‘strategic action plan’ for the sector which is supported by government, the education system and the industry itself.

Gary: 20,000 new jobs over 5 years. Does that not sound very ambitious? Here we are in pretty tough economic times, there may be another recession and you’re suggesting this industry is going to create 20,000 new jobs over a short period of time?

Rob: Our industry is pivotal for the economy here. Like the agri-food sector, we’re a very significant employer, but we’re also an industry which is bucking the economic trend. And that’s globally, not just in Northern Ireland. If you look at statistics from neighbouring regions like Scotland and England, Scotland is predicting 10,000 new IT jobs a year, the Republic of Ireland up to 5,000 new jobs. So when you look at our prediction of 4,000 new jobs a year, it’s not outlandish by any means.

Gary: Yes, but it’s still nearly doubling the size of the current industry.

Digital-RevolutionRob: Yes. But we are in the middle of a digital revolution. We’ve seen the proliferation of things like mobile, cloud computing, open source, big data, social networks and whether you’re in the insurance sector, or investment banking or pharmaceuticals or whatever, these new technologies and delivery mechanisms are being embraced and it’s driving a lot of demand for new products, new technologies, replacement of legacy systems. You’ve got to remember that IT is a business enabler, it’s all about improving the business and making it more competitive. It’s about driving business change, and global companies know they can leverage technology to drive their business. There are huge IT budgets being spent out there.

Take India – as a region, it knows it has the potential for 20% loss of current GDP which comes through its IT outsourcing services because of Cloud computing. So they have put in a programme around Cloud computing to make sure they can replace that 20% and then build on it. For any region, it’s all about being ready for the new trends that are happening. We haven’t missed the boat by any means here in Northern Ireland – we’ve a very vibrant, innovative technology and software products and services sector. We’ve had a lot of global organizations which have come in and set up their technology centres here and are servicing their global operations. So the demand, globally, is definitely there.

Gary: So the demand can fuel this large number of 20,000. But that begs the question – 4,000 jobs a year extra, and the people required are highly skilled, highly educated – can our education system support producing another 4,000 people a year with the appropriate education and skills? That seems like a tall order.

university-graduates-007Rob: Although the education system is improving and is outputting more IT graduates than it previously was, we only produce around 1,000 IT graduates a year. So that leaves a significant gap. So at Momentum we know we need to look to other avenues and think outside the box. This is not going to be a single recipe. It has to be as multi-pronged approach. So we want to leverage the ICT Skills Action Plan developed in association with DEL and draw on the success of things like the Software Test Academy, where we’ve taken non-IT graduates and accelerated them through training. We need to have more focus on re-skilling, looking at sectors that are in decline and looking at how we move people from those sectors into our knowledge economy.

So, yes there is a gap here, and we need a joined up approach with government to make sure that gap is filled. The education system needs to be up to speed and we need to work together with the universities and the colleges to make sure we can succeed.

Gary: That sounds like a tall order Rob. You’re saying that we have this great opportunity but there’s this large number of people that need to be produced, and you’re talking about the need for new approaches to education and training, you’re talking about other sectors providing people – that all sounds like a huge job and probably one that Momentum can’t do on its own. What sort of buy in are you getting from other parties?

Rob: We’ve had very good buy-in and support from government departments such as DEL, DETI, Invest NI. We’ve had ministerial support and key figures like Stephen Farry, Arlene Foster and Phil Flanagan, publically supporting the launch of the manifesto at Stormont, and we now need to move to the next stage which is about the detailed plans for action, for projects, a joined-up approach which will lead to the successful match up of supply and demand. So we plan to have a Digital Summit, which is a meeting of key and influential stakeholders in Northern Ireland, both in the sector and in government and education to look at what needs to happen and to put the detail, funding and strategic action plan in place. The manifesto is a roadmap, a set of ideas but there needs to be a very detailed set of initiatives.

Gary: So, to look forward beyond the 20,000 new jobs, you’ve another couple of aims within the manifesto?

expand-rapidly-into-new-marketsRob: Yes, we want to open up new markets, new business opportunities for our indigenous sector. There is not as much inter-trade between companies in our sector as there might be. We would like to encourage our sector and industry to “buy local;” but we also want to help our companies promote their products and services on a global scale. Because we can’t grow with just local business, we need to have an export stream. And that needs to be supported in the right way by the likes of Invest NI – who already do a good job in this space, but it’s about how we, as an industry body, can help identify the right type of companies to take to the right markets.

Gary: That’s gotta be worth the price of membership for a small company alone!

Rob: I think so. No matter what strand of the manifesto you look at, the industry has got to work together. We’ve all got to put some skin in the game. We’ve all got to engage and if you want to take advantage of the things we’re looking at here in terms of skills, funding and markets, then you’ve got to work as one unit. But our service at Momentum has got to be much more personalized – it’s got to be about us going out and understanding the specific needs of individual members and try to bring that back and formulate our ideas and plans and initiatives around the feedback we get.

Gary: And the third leg of the manifesto?

FundingRob: Is all about funding – new and innovative funding mechanisms. Last year we had the Creative Industry Fund (CIF), which funded over 50 tech projects. We hear on a daily basis that our members are struggling to get grants, or make claims for grants, or to get the banks to lend them money, struggling to get the banks to give them the working capital to survive long enough to make their great ideas a success. So, really, what other type of funding models can we, as a trade association, establish for our sector. We need to try and stop our technology entrepreneurs and innovators having to focus on operational and financial issues – they should be focusing on what they do best, which is technology innovation. As an organization we want to see what can be done to make all this easier for our members.

Gary: So you’ve got this grand vision, where you’re going to create thousands of new jobs, help the indigenous companies be more successful in global markets and enable them to do that by having the streams of funding they need. Let’s say you were successful, that you managed to pull various people together and you were the glue in the whole thing and made it happen – what would that mean for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland’s economy?

high_tech_hubRob: The impact could be fantastic and hugely significant. We could be looking at one in twenty of the working population being in our sector; we would be a global technology hub, a centre of excellence; if we sort out the skills gap, then we could end up servicing other regions with skills. We need to think big!

Gary: So in your mind, these ambitious goals – you’re going to succeed?

Rob: I will do my very best to direct and drive the board of Momentum and the organization to the point where we give ourselves every possible chance of succeeding in meeting these goals. That’s my role as Chairman of Momentum. The stakes are high and the rewards huge, but there’s no reason we can’t succeed.

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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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