Thursday, 19 May 2022
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
13. To ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the steps taken by him to ensure that employers have access to an adequate pool of qualified potential employees to meet the requirements of the labour market; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25234/22]
We have an unusual problem in this country at present, and that is that there seems to be a significant labour and skills shortage. What is the Department doing to ensure that there will be an adequate pool of potential employees to meet the requirements of the labour market?
The period from early 2020 was a difficult one for many businesses. Some sectors were more severely affected by public health restrictions than others and for a more prolonged period. Throughout this time, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and its enterprise agencies engaged with businesses and put in place a range of financial assistance to help protect as many jobs and save as many businesses as possible.
The latest CSO figures for the final quarter of last year show that employment has recovered strongly. This coincided with the easing of public health restrictions and Ireland's vaccination programmes, highlighting the importance of the Government's efforts to assist workers and businesses, especially through those wage supports which helped businesses maintain a link to their staff.
I fully understand that many businesses are now struggling with additional costs, particularly the cost of energy and other inputs, linked to the pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine. I convened a meeting of the enterprise forum to hear first-hand how the war in Ukraine is affecting businesses in Ireland and we are considering what further measures we can take to help companies.
We are very much aware of labour shortages in many sectors. We must respond through a combination of training and upskilling, education systems, further education and training, and the employment permits regime, which the Minister of State, Deputy English, spoke about earlier. However, employment permits are only part of the answer.
Some of these shortfalls in labour are due to pre-existing structural shifts, which have been accelerated by the impact of the pandemic. The digital and green transitions are altering the economy and leading to permanent changes in our labour market and business models. While not all jobs will return as we recover from the pandemic, embracing these transitions will open up substantial new employment opportunities, as well as potential skills mismatches, as these opportunities initially emerge.
The Government's economic recovery plan commits to supporting the transition of Ireland's economy and workforce to the new digital and green economies. This goal will be realised through ongoing support for people in securing and remaining in sustainable and quality employment, in areas of identified skills needs for business. This will be achieved, in particular, through the combination of 50,000 upskilling and reskilling opportunities and increased labour market activation interventions.
The first part of the reply avoided the question rather skilfully. Has the Department gone at this systematically? For example, what analysis has been done in relation to skills shortages in Ireland to quantify it and to identify what skills we are short in? In relation to those skills shortages, has an analysis been carried out as to how these might be filled by retraining and activation, by redirecting the focus of third level and apprenticeship programmes, and by having an attractive package to attract emigrants, who have fantastic skills, back to Ireland by dealing with issues such as the driver licence issue and relocation expenses? Has any analysis been carried out as to the parts of the EU where there is labour, people who might be willing to come to Ireland and might be attracted to come here, and on the number we would need to attract from countries outside of the EU to fill whatever gap is in the market because my understanding from many employers is that what making Ireland unattractive is the lack of a labour force?
A great deal of analysis has been carried out. We have an analysis unit in my Department on the labour market and future skills. There is also the future skills needs working group. The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, does some work on this as well, as does the National Competitiveness and Productivity Council, which falls under my Department's remit.
As the Deputy rightly pointed out though, it is a comprehensive issue. It is not only an issue for my Department. It is an issue for the Departments of Social Protection, Education and Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.
Part of the solution is education and training. We will be up to 10,000 apprentices a year quite soon. There are approximately 8,000 this year. That is a lot. There were very few people going into apprenticeships. Only a few years ago, there were a couple of thousand. We will be up to 10,000 a year quite soon.
I mentioned the 50,000 upskilling and reskilling opportunities. On work permits and work visas, we are issuing more than ever before.
We need to do more to make work pay to make sure that it is attractive for people to go into employment and to work more hours. The Deputy will be aware what we are doing in relation to sick pay and the living wage. Deputy Naughten mentioned earlier the PRSI step effect, which we need to deal with in some budget, sooner or later.
There is also the issue of automation. It may not be possible to provide labour to do everything and we need to automate more tasks. That is already happening but it will have to accelerate.
Since I was a young lad I heard automation would do away with all the jobs, and I am not that young anymore. What it has actually done is change the jobs but not done away with them. We have more jobs in the economy than there were in the 1960s. Automation is great. It takes away many boring jobs, but it does not do away with jobs, which is good.
Is there any plan in the Department to publish a comprehensive cross-sectoral policy approach to this so that there would be a comprehensive, as the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment said, all-embracing and cross-departmental approach to labour shortages? As I said, in the final analysis, we will have to look beyond the European Union for skilled people who might be interested in coming here. Without a detailed and comprehensive plan, it seems it will not be possible to look at all of the ways of dealing with this interesting issue in the economy, but it is one that we need to deal with urgently.
I will not delay the Acting Chairman.
In support of Tánaiste, I would say I was a member of this House when it was a great struggle to achieve 1 million people at work in the workforce. The next goal is 3 million. Everybody is to be congratulated on that. The important capability is to be able to identify and take action on the issue, which is a shortage of employees at present, and take it quickly.
I thank the Deputies. This is an interesting debate, and one that we should give more time to.
I echo Deputy Durkan's comments. It is only 20 years - it is not that long ago - since there were 3.5 million in the country and 1 million people at work. We now have 5.1 million or 5.2 million people in the country - a 50% increase in population in 20 years or so - and 2.3 million or 2.4 million people at work, a more than doubling of the number of people at work in Ireland. That is extraordinary. With that there are other consequences, such as a shortage of housing and significant strains on the infrastructure, but it is good that as a country our population is rising, people want to come to live here, our birth rate is still healthy and there are more people at work than ever before.
Going back to the Luddites, there were people predicting that automation would eliminate employment. That is not my view at all. We are offering work permits to a great many people to come here to work on very low wages in jobs that can be automated and we need to think about that and the logic behind it.
I take the point Deputy Ó Cuív made. We have looked at all these issues around workforce needs and demands in sections and silos and maybe we need to do something more in the round. The point the Deputy made in that regard is a good one and I will take it into consideration.