On Wednesday 26th September as part of a Sligo Chamber delegation, I met with Minister Joan Burton to discuss government policy on labour market activation. With unemployment hovering at just under 15% and the long term unemployment rate approaching 60% the single biggest challenge facing the government is how to get people back to work. The issue is a very complex one and getting the response right creates an immediate economic and social benefit to the country while getting it wrong means we could very well lose a generation of young people to long term unemployment and all the issues that can create.
The reality is that if you look behind the unemployment stats you will see that there are a huge number of people unemployed that have been hit by the collapse of the construction sector and there is no chance of all of those people getting back into the construction sector any time soon. We can also expect that any of the lower value manufacturing operations that have left Ireland in the period 2000 -2010 are not going to come back and re-establish manufacturing operations in Ireland in the short to medium term. It is clear that the industries with a bright future in Ireland are the biotechnology, pharmaceutical, medical technologies, specialist engineering, software and international services sectors. IDA Ireland has been very successful in attracting such industries to Ireland and thus positioning Ireland as a centre for knowledge led-industry in Europe. Therefore, the challenge is, how do we as a country retrain and upskill people to allow them to take up opportunities in the above-mentioned sectors?
The meeting with Minister Burton was very interesting and having never met the minister or heard her speak in public (outside of her media appearances) I was very interested to see how she would come across in person. Minister Burton came across as someone very well informed on all matters within her department and as someone who fully understands the challenge we face as a nation in getting people back to work. Most importantly she is clearly someone who is passionately committed to changing the system and making a real difference.
My concerns with the direction of the Pathways to Work programme are as follows:
1. We are not doing enough to engage with those people who are drifting into long term unemployment. The department of social protection needs to have experienced and skilled career guidance experts who are familiar with the job market to help people navigate today’s job market. I have serious reservations as to whether those skills exist within the department. The Nordic countries have used a model of early and regular one-on-one engagement with people as soon as they have become unemployed and this approach has been proven to work. In our business, we see people on a daily basis who are drifting into long term unemployment and have lost hope and energy with their job search. If someone believes there are no jobs out there and there is no point in applying for jobs then pretty quickly as their confidence diminishes this becomes a reality for them. I feel the recruitment industry and the outplacement industry could have a role to play in supporting the long term unemployed and I would encourage the Minister to engage with the recruitment industry to see if we can play a role in solving this problem.
2. While there are some great programmes out there via springboard and other programmes, it is essential that we provide more career support and guidance to get people to take up those opportunities. The high profile courses have been geared towards people taking up IT-related programmes and this is to be lauded and encouraged and is clearly responding to a real industry need. We must realise that not everyone has the aptitude to become a software engineer. There are significant opportunities in the Biotech, Pharmaceutical and Medical Devices industries where we could train people with construction experience to become skilled operators and technicians and more needs to be done in this area. I would highlight the work being done by Nibrt in this regard as a really good example of retraining people for specific niche roles in vibrant industries.
3. Jobbridge needs to have a follow-up programme. As things stand, once the programme is complete it is all or nothing for the employer and intern. Either they are taken on fulltime or they are just let go. A follow-up apprenticeship type programme could be the answer in this case. This would have to be closely monitored to ensure employers don’t abuse the system but a programme where the intern gets to stay on and further develops their experience at a reduced rate to the employer could have lasting benefits to both parties. If there was an onus on the employer to provide a set wage and provide a training programme and/or mentor it would weed out any companies who were simply looking for cheap labour.
As I mentioned earlier, I really believe Minister Burton is committed to changing the model of how we deal with unemployment. This I believe is the single biggest challenge to our economic recovery.