Seanad debates

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Springboard Programme: Motion


10:30 am

Photo of Jim D'ArcyJim D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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I move:

That Seanad Éireann: - acknowledges that between May 2011 and December 2014, 21,042 people participated in Springboard courses and welcomes the recent announcement of a further round of places for 2015;

- recognises that 98% of participants would recommend Springboard courses to a family member or a friend (source:;

- recognises that Springboard was introduced by this Government as a mechanism to reskill our unemployed to help them achieve gainful employment and that Springboard offers free higher education courses, leading to awards at certificate, degree and post-graduate level;

- notes with positivity that 812 courses in 42 colleges throughout the country are on offer for Springboard students;

- further notes that Springboard offers courses tailored towards emerging job markets such as ICT, high-level manufacturing, international financial services, and business and entrepreneurship start-ups;

- acknowledges that third-level institutions have played a key role in delivering the Springboard courses, and in particular, have done a lot to provide support to Springboard students;

- notes with confidence that Springboard students recognise the value of Springboard, as courses are predominately part-time and flexible, including online and distance education, mentoring, peer groups and interactive workshops, resulting in valued and recognised qualifications leading to enhanced opportunities for gainful employment;

- acknowledges the growing confidence that Springboard will lead to improved job prospects and career opportunities for its participants;

- recognises the work done by Springboard, in conjunction with the Department of Education and Skills and the third-level institutions in continuing the upward trend in female participation from 26% in 2011-2012 to 36% in 2014-2015;

- acknowledges that Springboard has played a key role in reducing the unemployment rate from 15.1% under the previous Government to 9.9% with a continued downward trend; and

- calls on the Minister for Education and Skills, in conjunction with the Department of Finance, Department of Social Protection and the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, to explore ways to roll out Springboard to low paid workers, in order to encourage upward mobility in the labour market.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I know that Springboard is an initiative of the Department of Education and Skills, but the Department of Social Protection was also involved. Recently, I spoke to a former employee of the Department of Social Protection, who told me that Springboard was one of the best jobs initiatives ever introduced.

Springboard+, which incorporates the ICT skills conversion programme, is fully funded through the National Training Fund. Springboard+ complements the core State-funded education and training system. It is one of a number of special initiatives designed to support people in returning to employment and build the supply of skilled graduates for vacancies that arise across key sectors of the economy. Courses approved for funding focus on areas such as ICT, high-end manufacturing, international financial services, skills to trade internationally and entrepreneurial or business start-up skills. Work placements of three to six months are offered on almost all of the courses. The courses are highly flexible, and participants can continue with their courses throughout the summer months, when most courses close down. In addition, if one gets a job during one's course, one can continue with the course.

The profile of Springboard participants from 2011 to 2015 shows that the programme has been very successful in reaching its target cohorts. In 2014-2015, 63% of participants were aged between 25 and 39 years, and 61% had been out of work for more than a year, an increase on the 2011 figure of 58%. Data shows that participants who were long-term unemployed at the start of the course find it harder to secure employment, but now 46% of the group achieve employment or self-employment within six months of completing a Springboard course. Further, a survey of all graduates in 2011 to 2014 has indicated that within two years of completing a Springboard course as many as 60% are employed or self-employed, and 74% of Springboard participants from these years are no longer on the live register. I would also note that self-employment is a significant feature of Springboard, with 740 people, or 15% of respondents to surveys carried out between 2011 and 2014, being self-employed.

A major provider of Springboard courses is the institutes of technology. I have spoken to people who are closely associated with the provision of Springboard courses in Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT. In 2013-2014 there were 125 enrolments, and in 2014-2015 there were 55 enrolments. DkIT has now successfully achieved funding for 11 courses under the Government's Springboard 2015 initiative. Recently, at the launch of the national Springboard initiative in Dublin, the Minister for Education and Skills announced funding of €1.2 million and 242 places for DkIT. She said: "Now in its fifth year Springboard is playing a crucial role in rapidly responding to emerging skills needs in high-growth areas and in supporting people back into employment." I wish to note that the institutes of technology play a key role in the delivery of Springboard, so the courses are admirably matched to local needs.The courses at DkIT that will run from September 2015 are in the areas of digital marketing, hospitality operations, construction engineering, medical device software, digital animation, games design, agribusiness, and food supply chain operations. None of those courses was available when I was at school. This provision illustrates how the world is changing in terms of employment and how Springboard and the education providers are keeping up with those changes. In addition, DkIT will offer a higher diploma in computing as part of the ICT skills initiative. This aims to provide a career route into the IT sector for graduates whose primary degree is in a discipline other than computing. Members might wonder why I have spent so long talking about DkIT. I have used it merely as an example; all the institutes of technology are providing similar courses suited to local needs.

Under Springboard, participants can avail of free part-time courses leading to qualifications that are in demand among employers. Those currently in receipt of payments from the Department of Social Protection will retain their benefits and will not be liable for third level fees. Prospective students can contact the lifelong learning centre for advice and information and can apply online for courses through The target cohort in 2015 comprises jobseekers who already hold a national framework of qualifications, NFQ, award at level 5 or a FETAC award at NFQ level 6 or equivalent and have a previous history of employment in construction, manufacturing or other sectors of the economy where employment may not recover to pre-recession levels, jobseekers with a previous history of employment who already hold a higher level qualification at NFQ levels 6 to 9 and who may require additional upskilling or reskilling to re-enter employment, and previously self-employed people at all qualification levels.

I urge the Minister of State to evaluate the potential for Springboard to be extended to low-paid workers to support upward mobility in the workforce and the concept of lifelong education and training. He is doing a very good job in overseeing the establishment of the education and training boards. Perhaps consideration might be given to involving them in any extension of the eligibility criteria for the Springboard programme. I have great pleasure in commending this motion to Seanad Éireann.

Photo of Terry BrennanTerry Brennan (Fine Gael)
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I second the motion. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. I seem to have been looking through the same statistics as Senator Jim D'Arcy and will try to avoid repetition. Springboard Plus, which incorporates the ICT skills conversion programme, is fully funded through the national training fund. It complements the core State-funded education and training system and is one of a number or special initiatives designed to support people back into employment and build the supply of skilled graduates for vacancies arising across key sectors of the economy.

A fourth phase of Springboard Plus is being rolled out, providing for 9,000 places at level 6, higher certificate, to level 9, masters degree, on the national framework of qualifications. Courses will be run on both a part-time and full-time or accelerated basis in 42 public and private higher education providers throughout the country. Like Senator D'Arcy, I compliment Dundalk Institute of Technology on its programme.

Springboard Plus is included in the Action Plan for Jobs and is one of the Skills To Work programmes. The Action Plan for Jobs is a central pillar of our strategy for economic recovery and includes actions to be taken across government. It was conceived against the backdrop of the domestic jobs crisis and challenging economic conditions. It has involved putting in place a comprehensive framework of actions and reforms right across the public sector and in partnership with industry to create a new, sustainable economy based on exports, innovation and enterprise. It includes a commitment to seeing full employment of 2.1 million by the end of 2018.

The initiative is being rolled out to the regions through the Action Plan for Jobs regional initiative to ensure communities throughout the country benefit from the recovery. The objective of this new initiative is to strengthen and develop job creation in the regions by encouraging local authorities, regional bodies, higher education institutions, other public bodies, the private sector and communities to come forward with innovative ideas to boost job creation in their area.

Skills to Work brings together the key Government initiatives introduced since 2011 to support jobseekers to access the training and work experience they need and encourage businesses to employ people currently on the live register. The five programmes that come under the Skills to Work initiative are Springboard, MOMENTUM, Skillnets, JobBridge and JobsPlus. Springboard provides free upskilling in higher education in areas of identified skills need. The initiative's primary target group is unemployed people with a previous history of employment. To date, some €85 million has been allocated to Springboard from Exchequer funding, providing for more than 21,000 places.

All courses approved for funding under Springboard are selected by an independent panel with industry and educational expertise following a competitive tendering process. In particular, courses with a proven track record in getting people back into employment are recommended for funding. Courses approved for funding focus on areas such as ICT, high-end manufacturing, international financial services, skills to trade internationally, and entrepreneurial and business start-up skills. Work placements of three to six months will be offered on almost all of the courses. A further €27.4 million will be allocated to Springboard Plus this year, providing for 9,000 places on 285 courses in 42 colleges throughout the country.To be eligible for a place on a Springboard course a person must be unemployed, actively seeking employment, and be in receipt of one of the range of qualifying social protection payments, or be signing for credits or be previously self-employed. It is worth noting that there is no requirement to be in receipt of a payment for a particular period of time prior to the commencement of the programme.

The profile of Springboard participants from 2011 to 2015 shows that the programme has been very successful in reaching its target. A total of 63% of participants were aged between 25 and 39 and 61% had been out of work for more than a year, an increase from 58% in 2011. Participants are mostly men but year on year there is an upward trend in women participants. There were 74% men and 26% women in 2011 and it was 64% men and 36% women in 2014. Data show that while participants who were long-term unemployed at the start of their course find it more difficult to get employment, 45% of this group now achieve employment or self-employment within six months of completing a Springboard course. That is truly remarkable and an indication of the success of the programme.

A survey of all graduates between 2011 and 2014 indicates that within two years of completing a Springboard course, 60% are employed or self-employed, and 74% of Springboard participants from those years are no longer on the live register.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. One could not really argue with anything in this evening's motion because, to be fair, the Springboard programme has been a good one and has facilitated participation among young people to gain educational advantage which leads to job opportunities. No argument could be made on the merits or otherwise of Springboard. It is an excellent programme that has been working. Senator Jim D’Arcy indicated that there are 242 places in Dundalk IT and there are other ITs throughout the country. It is great that it is spread around the country.

Youth unemployment is not just a major issue in this country, it is also an issue across Europe. This week the Nevin Economic Research Institute highlighted the need to address youth unemployment in this country. It referred in particular to the JobBridge programme and the abuse of it. The programme, which pays €50 on top of the dole, is being abused by employers. It is not a means to an end for many individuals who are on the programme because they are dumped off it without any job security. Dr. Tom Healy from the Nevin institute suggested the Government’s policy on youth unemployment was more about trying to bring about corrective action rather than prevention of youth unemployment and a long-term strategy. While there is a stopgap approach in place, the Government’s public policy is not a preventative one nor is it strategic in a long-term sense. I agree with some of what Dr. Healy had to say. The Government has taken positive steps to address the issue.

Currently, a total of 21,000 students are participating in the Springboard programme, which is to be welcomed. The difficulty with the programme as a Government labour activation policy is that not enough emphasis is being placed on further education and training, apprenticeship schemes and the facilitation of individuals who might not wish to proceed to third and fourth levels. We must examine the issue from a public policy point of view. Young people are leaving school early and they deserve a chance as well. Perhaps we could consider the opportunities available to young people in a country such as Germany, for example. The German economy has been developed and transformed generation after generation through apprenticeship programmes. Before FÁS was renamed, even though the country was going down the tubes and building work was gone, it was offering plastering courses. SOLAS is the new agency and it is more progressive but we must devise a 20-year strategy in terms of the future of the country and where we want people to play a role.

A total of 1.9 million people were in employment up to the end of 2014 and it is slightly more than that now. A total of 110,000 people were working in agriculture, forestry and fishing, 236,000 worked in industry and manufacturing, and 106,000 worked in construction. It dipped to approximately 99,000 in 2012, but it is still a big industry. Approximately 450,000 people work in those three sectors and then approximately 1.4 million work in services, including the public sector, the Civil Service, finance, insurance, real estate and other sectors. While much of the focus in Springboard is on the 1.4 million, approximately 500,000 work in what are traditionally jobs that could be obtained through apprenticeship programmes and through further education and training. There is a need to develop that area. I welcome the decrease in unemployment.

Approximately one in five people aged between 18 years and 25 years, which is approximately 20%, totalling approximately 110,000 young people, cannot find a job at the moment. We must be able to give them an opportunity. While the State cannot intervene and provide jobs, public policy must focus on the provision of opportunities for those people. The decision to withdraw career guidance teachers in second level schools was a very negative policy decision by the Minister for Education and Skills because at a time when the economy is improving and young people in second level education want to consider the opportunities available to them, they do not have the necessary career guidance. That is a retrograde step.

There are many other points I could make. In general, Springboard is good but more needs to be done. I appeal to the Minister of State to reach out. We must put the politics to one side while we consider the approach to take as a country. We have large-scale youth unemployment and we must create opportunities for those who are unemployed in order that they can get a job. JobBridge is not working. It is being exploited left, right and centre and it is wrong that young people are exploited in that way. I know many young people who have taken part in the JobBridge programme. They were promised a job and got an extra €50 a week but there was nothing at the end of the process. They are now on social welfare.

Unemployment benefit is approximately 33% of the total budget of the Department of Social Protection. Approximately €20.5 billion is spent on social welfare. Employment initiatives account for approximately €6.5 billion of that. By reducing the expenditure in that area the Minister will help the country, but the only way to do it is by getting people into work. Young people are the future of the country and they need a chance. They need a leg up and public policy will help them to achieve that.

Photo of Mary MoranMary Moran (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the House and I commend my Fine Gael colleagues on their introduction of this Private Members' motion. As has been said, it is an excellent motion. It shows that Springboard is working. It is one of the big successes of this Government. Since it was launched in 2011, as has been said, more than 21,000 people have participated in Springboard courses, with an allocation of €85 million. Others have referred to the eligibility requirements for the programme, including that candidates must be unemployed, actively seeking employment, in receipt of one of the qualifying social protection payments, previously employed or signing on for credits. A total of 812 courses have been offered by 42 institutions, and there is no doubt as to the benefit this has had for so many students on these courses, who have been provided with the opportunity to upskill and retrain in areas of identified skills need. Springboard Plus is now going even further. All courses approved for funding under this programme are selected by an independent panel with industry and educational expertise following a competitive tendering process. In particular, courses with a proven track record in getting people back into employment are recommended for funding. I welcome the recent announcement that almost a further €27.5 million will be allocated to Springboard Plus in 2015, and this will provide for 9,000 places on 285 courses in 42 colleges throughout the country. To date, two trend analysis evaluations on Springboard have been completed, with the third due next month. Trends emerging show that 98% of people would recommend Springboard courses to a family member or friend. One knows something is working when people recommend it to those closest to them.

The programme has also been very successful in reaching its target cohorts. Some 63% of participants are between the ages of 25 and 39, which is a critical stage in the world of work, and in 2014, 61% had been out of work for more than a year. I am delighted to see that, year-on-year, there is also an upward trend in female participants, from 26% in 2011 to 36% in 2014. I was recently speaking to a lady who qualified as a teacher many years ago, got married and gave up teaching to rear her children. She devoted the last 20 years to raising her children, and when she went back to look for a job teaching, she found her qualifications were not up to date. She was finding it very difficult to get something, so she availed of the Springboard course, went off in a completely different direction, and is now hoping to specialise in an area of ICT, which she had never imagined before. As she said, it had a positive effect not only on her life but also on her children, because for the first time she was going back out into the world of work, and her children also had to gain independence.

I am sure reference has been made to our local college in Dundalk, Dundalk Institute of Technology, which has been awarded 11 Springboard courses this year. There are 550 places on courses ranging from level 6 through to level 9. We are all in agreement - those of us from County Louth, anyway - on how excellent DkIT has proven itself to be. It offers a range of courses, from a level 6 certificate in building information modelling up to a level 9 MSc in computing and medical device software. There is a diploma in composing for games and a certificate in 3D for games. DKIT is going exactly where we need to be going in areas that need to be targeted. Senator Ó Domhnaill referred earlier to colleges offering courses in plastering during the downturn in the economy, which is self-evidently ridiculous.

This is brilliant for people who have a level of education and who are going in a different direction, but I totally agree with Senator Ó Domhnaill that much more needs to be done for people who have left school early, at 16, and who may not be able to access courses. I am talking even more specifically about people with an intellectual disability. I spoke to someone today who said that some people who want to leave school early are coming from special schools at the age of 16 or 17 and they cannot access the HSE-funded programmes in the National Learning Network until they are 18. They are caught in that dilemma, and we all know that if a person gets into the habit of being unemployed or not pursuing something, it is much harder to get back into the swing of it. I agree that is something we need to look at, and maybe we should not only have such high levels, but also level 4 or 5.

I commend the Fine Gael Senators on their introduction of this motion and I thank the Minister of State for attending.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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The Minister of State is very welcome. I know his enthusiasm and his heart are in this programme. I have been involved since the beginning, and I have been chairman of the selection committee for the past five years. One sees such satisfaction in people who have changed course, probably having had a degree in architecture, quantity surveying or something like that, who suddenly found there was no job for them. They might have taken up an ICT course or even a cookery course or something like that. It is such a success to see their sense of achievement. The selection committee I have chaired for the last five years is made up of experts in various areas, who are able to select the different courses we should undertake.

Many employers just cannot find sufficient skills at that high level. I have a word of caution for Senator Ó Domhnaill: let us not make the Springboard course too wide. If we need to get apprentices in other areas, let us do something else. The fact that €100 million has been spent in the last few years and another €27 million is being spent this year is a reminder of how valuable the programme is. This year it will provide free part-time courses for up to 9,000 job-seekers. The results are clear. Over 74% of all Springboard participants from 2011 to 2014 are no longer on the live register. That is a great achievement. As the motion mentions, the initiative must get a great deal of credit for drastically reducing our unemployment rate. It is very important. We are all aware of the number of foreign investors who come to Ireland, usually in ICT, and say they cannot get locals to work in that area, while they also need other skills. Therefore, the selection of courses that enable those skills to be acquired is important.

I was shown around the Google headquarters last year. The chief executive showed me one particular man. They did not seem to have any managers in Google - they walk around on their own - and there is plenty of food, soft drinks, and everything else. He had his earphones on and a microphone. The chief executive told me the man was from eastern Stuttgart, because Google knows that if it wants to sell something to someone in eastern Stuttgart, it does not want to go in with a Munich accent. It is a bit like someone trying to sell something in Dundalk with a Kerry accent. I am sure that is the wrong way around, but whatever it is - maybe in Donegal with a Kerry accent.

Photo of Mary MoranMary Moran (Labour)
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We would not understand them.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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Language is just one of the areas in which we are weak. We are so weak on that in Ireland. Last year, when a company - I think it was Hewlett-Packard - said it was taking on a number of people and stated that they would need a modern language other than English, one of the reporters at the time said that meant no Irish need apply, because we are so bad at modern languages. One of the things we are attempting to do in Springboard is to encourage the use of modern languages on that basis. One of the pieces missing in the jigsaw of matching people to employers is the correct data. That is, when students graduate in this country, we do not systematically collect, analyse and distribute information on what they end up doing, be it employment or further education.We have to do more on that so when they graduate, we can find out how they got on and how we can improve things. The technical term for this is collecting the employment outcomes of students. If we did so, we would be able to better match students with the needs of employers. That is crucial data and many EU countries recognise this fact. For instance, Italy and the Netherlands already collect that data. This information is critical for policy-makers and higher institutions because it helps them to detect which courses and fields of study are in high demand among employers.

There is another area on which we can move. Students of the ICT skills conversion course have to wait nine months before they qualify. Something can be done about that. I am not quite sure what the technical reason for doing that is, but I would like the Minister of State to consider the matter and determine whether we can achieve something on that basis. It is a shame that somebody who wants to do a course finds that he or she is not able to do so for nine months. I am sure there is a simple answer and the problem can be solved.

I welcome the motion. It is great to draw attention to Springboard. It is a major success and can be a bigger success in the years ahead, which will happen with the enthusiasm of the Government, the Minister of State and the very bright team of people in the HEA which has put its heart and soul, effort and enthusiasm into the programme. Long may it continue.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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County Louth is well served, with three speakers having spoken on the motion. Dundalk IT is obviously doing wonderful work where Springboard is concerned. I recently read in a local newspaper a headline suggesting that the Government was massaging the live register figures because there was a 300% increase in people on Government schemes. The information came from a press release from an opposition Deputy. The 300% increase was an increase from about 80 to 250 or 260 people, while the live register had reduced by over 2,000 people. That shows one how headlines cannot tell the true story at times.

As has been mentioned, there has been some exploitation of workers through the JobBridge scheme, which has been addressed, but I do not think anybody can say the same about Springboard and Springboard Plus, which have proved to be a resounding success. As my colleague, Senator Brennan, mentioned, a survey of all graduates between 2011 and 2014 indicated that within two years of completing a Springboard course, 60% were employed or self-employed and 74% of Springboard participants from these years were no longer on the live register. Those figures are very positive.

Self-employment is a significant feature of Springboard, with 740, or 15%, of the respondents surveyed between 2011 and 2014 reporting being in self-employment. The quality of employment is also trending upwards, with 86% of those employed being in full-time jobs. That nails a lie, namely, that there are no jobs being created as a result of Government schemes. Springboard and Springboard Plus provide full-time jobs. More than half of those who withdrew from the courses early, some 24% of participants, went on to take up employment. The feedback on Springboard from participants is excellent, with 98% of the 2014 graduates willing to recommend Springboard to others wishing to reskill for employment.

Some 73% of graduates felt, six weeks after course completion, that their career prospects were better. That is what these schemes are all about, especially Springboard and Springboard Plus. They give confidence back to people who have lost it because of unemployment.

There are many other programmes under the Action Plan for Jobs being pressed by the Government. The ICT skills conversion programme was introduced in 2012 as part of the joint Government and industry ICT action plan as a means to address the concerns of industry about continuing difficulties in sourcing ICT graduates with the requisite skills in Ireland, not only to fill existing vacancies but also to support the expansion of their activities and potential employment opportunities.

A second ICT action plan for 2014 to 2018, launched in 2014, recommended that further rounds of ICT skills conversion programmes should be rolled out, something Senator Quinn has addressed on several occasions during the Order of Business. People involved in businesses have said we must address the skills shortage which industry is witnessing in the country. Senator Quinn also alluded to the question of modern languages, which is another area where we need to upgrade skills and have people in place when jobs come on board.

The ICT skills conversion programme is open to all applicants, regardless of their social welfare status, who have the capacity and underlying aptitude, as well as an honours degrees in a cognitive discipline, to undergo an intensive programme of study and work experience to acquire honours degree level at ICT programming skills. The programmes which are selected for funding following a competitive call for proposals are designed and delivered in partnership with industry. Partnership is key because these schemes must be designed in partnership with the industry which requires the skills and include an accredited work placement of three to six months' duration.

In terms of the back to education allowance, a person in receipt of jobseeker's benefit and jobseeker's allowance for at least nine of the previous 12 months may qualify to retain his or her income support while participating in an ICT skills conversion course. Eligible participants will transfer to a bespoke version of the back to education allowance. Many necessary schemes have been introduced and will give people confidence.

I am fed up listening to people say that all of the schemes are the same and are only a mechanism to take people off the live register. They should speak to the people involved in Springboard and Springboard Plus. The results and data are there for everybody to see. People need more and more skills and we need to upskill our workforce to fill the jobs that have been and will be created. People laughed when the Government suggested that we would create 100,000 net jobs over five years. That has been achieved over four years but there is a long way to go.

Photo of Kathryn ReillyKathryn Reilly (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister of State. I very much support Springboard. Some people might be shocked that I am supporting something. It is apt that I speak in support of it after Senator Cummins. Any scheme that opens up higher education is very much welcomed by me and my party. The reskilling across Ireland of workers who lost their jobs during the economic crisis is a priority for all of us. The nature of the crisis was that it affected certain industries, areas and age groups more than others.Those of us from rural areas know all too well the effect the recession has had on employment in our communities, counties and constituencies. As much as there is a need to reskill workers for new emerging industries, there also needs to be greater effort in attracting companies in these emerging industries to areas outside Dublin. While it might seem parochial, efforts should start to be made in attracting these industries to the Border region, as well as in the midlands and the west.

In many instances, unemployment can hit workers in perfectly functioning and profitable companies. In Cavan and Monaghan, we recently had the closure of the Bose plant. The workers were skilled and the factory was profitable but the decision was taken by the heads of the company to move the operations to another country. In instances such as this, outreaches should be made to bring similar industries back into an area compatible with the workers’ skills.

Third level institutions must be commended on their support for and delivering on the Springboard scheme, as well as other activation schemes in which they play a role. This shows the intrinsic value of these institutions. It also highlights how these institutions are often underutilised and their potential in implementing these programmes.

There is a need for third level institutions to be opened up to more of our citizens in whatever way possible. I am delighted with the continuing upward trend in female participation in third level institutions. However, more needs to be done for women re-entering the workforce, be it through Springboard or other measures. More also needs to be done for women already in the workforce. Up to 50% of women over the age of 15 are currently in the labour force and make up 46% of all those in employment. In terms of labour market participation, however, women are more likely to work on a part-time basis and almost 70% of all part-time workers are women.

Springboard could be improved in areas such as eligibility. Affordable child care should be prioritised as this would help women enter into employment, as well as helping them move from part-time to full-time employment. One issue with which I am concerned is the type of employment being created across all sectors. We want to see decent work created and a living wage paid to workers. One of the most devastating impacts of the economic and social crisis is the prevalence of low pay while salaries at the upper echelons of the labour market have soared. We must ensure this economic inequality does not permeate the economy too much. The prevalence of precarious work is a worrying trend.

More could be done for labour activation. We need to seriously look at what works and does not. For that reason, I urge the Government to prioritise direct funding to schemes such as Springboard. We are all unanimous in supporting this and the work it has done. Senator Ó Domhnaill referred to JobBridge, concerns which we share. There have been criticisms of how it has been used, perhaps even abused, and how some young people have even been exploited on it. My colleague, Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh, recommended we get rid of JobBridge and put forward an alternative scheme. Schemes such as Springboard and JobsPlus are working very well. More funding needs to be put into such schemes rather than into those such as JobBridge.

I commend the Government on introducing schemes such as Springboard and JobsPlus which are work-related and of great benefit to people who take them up, involving real jobs, real pay and terms and conditions. They help a generation of people whose skills may have been redundant to upskill and allow them become jobs-ready. As many Members have mentioned, there are employers who want these skills. If we are giving them the skills, it is a win-win situation.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, to the House. With my colleague Senator Ó Domhnaill, we absolutely applaud the concept of the Springboard programme. While the Leader is correct that people will always be critical of government, no matter what their hue and colour is, I am not going to be critical about any scheme that will create jobs for people in the most vulnerable part of our society, namely, those coming out of college or those who are concerned about where their future lies. The 21,000 students participating in the scheme are a credit to it.

However, I want to start at the other end. I hope the Government might be more focused on the further education rather than the higher education area. I cannot help but think about the vocational sector. The original reasons that the vocational schools system started back in the 1930s was to provide skills for what was then a predominantly agricultural economy. At local level, as we all know, particularly the teachers among us, sadly in some cases, the vocational education option was for the second or third child on the farm or the child not seen to be academically bright. Ironically, the vocational education system has served and still serves this country exceptionally well.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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Since 1930, it has provided the backbone of our economy in that it created and provided skills across the whole wide range of human endeavour that was needed by the economy and which is perhaps needed even more so now. It is somewhat ironic that the original motivation behind further education provision has been neglected. I am sure Senator Craughwell will have something to say about this, having been himself involved in that area.

I am disappointed, therefore, that in last year’s budget, the then Minister for Education and Skills reduced funding for the post-leaving certificate, PLC, sector. He provided for a two point increase in the pupil-teacher ratio for PLC schools, saving €4 million but with a loss of 200 whole-time equivalent teaching posts in the PLC sector. The allocations to VECs, vocational education committees, were cut by €13 million. Capitation rates to PLC colleges and VTOS, vocational training opportunities scheme, were also cut by 2%. As part of the social welfare budget, it was announced that from January 2013, the €300 cost of education allowance payable to back to education allowance participants would be discontinued for new and existing participants. As a result of these changes, the number of vocational schools offering PLC programmes dropped. This decrease was also reflected in a drop of some 1,521 students taking such programmes in 2013-2014, bringing their numbers down to 34,003.

Accordingly, it is not beyond the bounds of comprehension that Members on this side of the House call on the Minister to do more to support and enhance the further education sector and, maybe, attempt to reverse the cuts imposed on the sector in recent years now there is an upturn in the economy. I am sure the Minister of State does not need to be reminded that when Tony Blair became UK Prime Minister in 1997, he was asked what his three priorities were. His answer was education, education and education. I know the Government, through these programmes, is very conscious of the importance of education.

In the context of where the focus is now, perhaps we should look at those not academically gifted or who are not suitable or comfortable in an academic environment. One of my sons is doing very well, relatively speaking. However, he never liked the academic side of school. He used to say he wanted to be doing something. The written side of school work was not something with which he felt comfortable. It was inevitable that he ended up taking a degree course in audio-video production. He is now in America on a graduate visa programme. Fingers crossed, he will get something there that will enhance skills. In the context of this debate, it brought home to me that there is a significant cohort of young people for whom higher education is not the best option. While the focus seems to be on this sector, all the evidence suggests employers do not all see it in that light too. For example, the dominance of an exclusive focus on higher education has had important implications for young people, particularly for those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.A surprising number of employers express impatience that graduates "do not know how things work and it takes a year or two to get them job ready". Despite the numbers of graduates seeking jobs, employers are instructing recruitment agents to look for people "with the right skills to get the job done".

There is a great deal more I would like to say but my time is up. When I was obliged to go to London as a young man to find work, I eventually ended up in the employment agency business. I worked for an Irish company called the Emerald Staff Agency, sadly no longer with us, which had several branches across London. I was only 20 or 21 at the time and I remember dealing with young Irish emigrants who were just off the boat, with a leaving certificate in one hand and an expectation in the other. They had been told that if they got their leaving certificate, they would be guaranteed a job for life. This was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when second level participation was not as high as it is now. I had to ready some of these people for interview by explaining that their academic qualification was not enough. There had to be a certain extra dimension to how they would get the job done. I have found time and again that there is a gap in the Irish education sector in this regard.

The cohort of long-term unemployed was stubbornly large even before the recession. Will the Minister of State consider whether there is a need to refocus and rebalance the Springboard programme, not in any way to take away from its success but rather to expand it a little by putting resources into further education, which includes PLC and FETAC courses, instead of focusing solely on the higher education sector?

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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It is always a pleasure to welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English. I thank Senators Jim D'Arcy and Terry Brennan for bringing this motion to the House and the Leader for accommodating the debate. Senator D'Arcy has demonstrated once again his great commitment to further education.

On the day I was elected to this House, I thought how strange it was to have joined the Army as a 16 year old and now to be a Member of the Oireachtas. Further education brought me to where I am today. While talking with my children at the weekend about what I had done since leaving school, I worked out that I have had ten changes of career. It is not bad going and I might have another one yet. Who knows?

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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The Senator is in a safe place now.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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Springboard is a tremendous initiative. I am somewhat concerned at having to be so complimentary to the Government, but it is indeed an excellent programme. The Leader is right that those who scoff at these schemes should tell us what alternatives they would offer. I do not accept the notion that the purpose of the scheme is to massage the unemployment figures or anything else.

Senator Feargal Quinn referred to language skills. I was in Finland the week before last as part of a delegation and, in the course of my visit, was shown around a primary school by a 12 year old boy. Half way up the stairs he said to me: "I'm terribly sorry, Senator. Could you tell me how Ireland is getting on with the crisis?" When I asked him what crisis he meant, he said he was referring to our economic crisis. I assured him we are doing fine now and he said he was a bit concerned because his country is entering its own economic crisis. I complimented his English and asked whether he also spoke Swedish, it being a dual-language school. He said he did as well as Russian and German, although his German was not too good. This was a 12 year old. We must do more to improve the take-up of language learning.

There is a need for joined-up thinking if we are to tackle these issues. One of the finest schools of catering this country has ever had, which is located in Killybegs, is to be closed and moved back into Letterkenny IT. This move could well see its reputation going down the toilet. A cash consideration drove that decision and it is simply not good enough. The Irish Hotels Federation would be capable of supplying students to that school all winter long and placing them in work during the summer.

There is an overemphasis on outputs when discussing education issues, which is worrying. Having spent the past 20 years of my life in the further education sector, I am aware of the view among those working in it that SOLAS is not there to assist them but to kill them. That is the vibe one gets and it is a bad one. At a recent meeting of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, there was a discussion about apprenticeships and the submissions made by various organisations on that subject. The further education sector was responsible for only 14% of the submissions made to SOLAS. I have seen at first hand the level of innovation in the sector and I do not accept it was only capable of producing 14% of the submissions. Some 33,000 or 34,000 students are in further education.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I apologise for interrupting the Senator. Will he clarify his point regarding SOLAS?

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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It is my understanding that SOLAS put out a request for proposals regarding apprenticeships. Of all the submissions that came in, the further education sectors accounted for just 14%. The third level sector made up the majority and the private sector also submitted a significant number. I spoke to principals at the meeting to which I referred who told me they were never consulted on the matter. There is something terribly wrong if SOLAS is looking for ideas but neglecting to consult the people at the coalface. The Minister of State and I might discuss this issue at another time. My time will be up if I do not move on.

During my trip to Finland, I visited a further education college outside Helsinki which has 11,000 students, 900 teachers and a budget of €71.9 million per annum. That is further education as we all would like to see it. While I realise we cannot afford that level of investment, it is what we should be aspiring to. In my final speech as president of the Teachers Union of Ireland, I spoke about how further education in Ireland must change. It needs to shake off the shackles of second level education and become a sector in its own right. It must deliver longer hours and more weeks of learning per year. If that means changing contracts of employment, then it must be done. I am sure the unions will be willing to negotiate.

Teacher registration has professionalised the further education sector through the Teaching Council but also restricted its ability to develop programmes. I am talking here about high-tech programmes. My final job in Dún Laoghaire VEC, as it was then, was to develop a course in cloud computing in association with VMware, the intention being that I would deliver the course myself. Unfortunately, the course died when I was elected president of the TUI. Nobody would take it up because continuing professional development was required. We have to fund the teachers in further education. Springboard is great if one has a third level qualification. If one does not, something better is needed. We need to create a space where the further education colleges can employ experts in the industry to come in and deliver modules rather than have the shackles of the Teaching Council preventing them from developing.

Courses in further education cannot all be short ten-week courses, but there is a place for that type of training within the further education and ETB sector. I went to Limerick Senior College when I was 35 and came out four years later with a degree in economics through the London School of Economics. That is what we need to be doing. Online learning is all well and good. In fact, I pioneered online learning in Dún Laoghaire in 1996. While it is great, it is no longer the answer. We need blended learning, which requires weekend classes where students can go in and meet their teacher face to face.

When I became president of the TUI, I wrote to all of the education partners, including the Department, school managers, my fellow trade unionists and so on, proposing that we all go into a room for a day, leave our respective hats outside and between us come up with a model for our ideal education system. That suggestion received a very flat response right across the sector, including from some of my trade union colleagues. The Minister of State is brave enough to take a similar initiative. Will he throw open a conference and invite all the relevant parties to participate? I certainly am prepared to leave my trade union flags outside.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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I join in the welcome for the Minister of State, Deputy English, for this very important debate. I compliment my colleagues, Senators Jim D'Arcy and Terry Brennan, on proposing and seconding the motion before the House. This is a very good news story. It is delivering in a big way and making a huge contribution to reducing unemployment levels, which have come down from 15.1% to 9.9%. As we saw in the figures published by the CSO in the last 24 hours, the number of unemployed people fell by 45,000 in the 12 months to the end of quarter 1, bringing the annual net increase in employment to over 40,000 and indicating that we have 1.93 million people at work.

Back in 2011, when the country was on its knees, the Government rightly acknowledged that our talented workforce was not going to find work in construction, manufacturing and retail, which were experiencing real difficulty. It provided 6,000 places, which were announced by the then Minister, to upskill and reskill people in order to address the skills shortages in certain areas. We must all acknowledge the fine job that was done by the Higher Education Authority in managing the scheme and, indeed, the 42 educational institutions that have offered a wide range of courses. We judge these things by results. The fact that more than 21,000 people participated in 812 courses in those 42 institutions I mentioned is certainly an indication that there was an appetite for this course. It was easy to access, and the fact that it was provided without any fees was certainly a major plus.

A very interesting statistic is that more than 54% of people who graduated from the courses are earning over €25,000 per annum today, and 11% are earning over €43,000. Around 40% of those who participated in courses were in employment within six weeks and there was a significant level of self-employment, as has already been noted. I find that element particularly pleasing. We want to encourage entrepreneurship and to encourage people to consider providing employment for themselves and, hopefully, creating an additional job or two. The Action Plan for Jobs, which is an all-of-government response to the crisis, is placing an emphasis on all aspects of our economy. Hopefully we will continue to see progress being made and we will hit the target of full employment by 2018.

The feedback from people who have participated in the Springboard programme is excellent. Some 98% of the 2014 graduates were willing to recommend Springboard to others who wished to reskill for employment, and 73% of graduates felt their career prospects were much better six weeks after the course's completion.

My colleagues referred to a number of issues. I particularly want to refer to the points made by Senator Quinn on the need for us, as a country, to invest more in and place much more emphasis on foreign languages. We all know many of the job opportunities in the future will be in China, other parts of Asia and parts of the developing world. We need to spend much more of our resources on equipping our young people to seek those opportunities in other countries but also, as jobs are located here from some of those foreign countries, we need to have the skills to fill the opportunities that arise.

I agree very much with Senator Mooney in regard to the many young people in this country who are non-academic and have lower skills levels and lower educational attainment. I believe we need to focus on those people. In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and up to 2000, in my own town there were three major manufacturing companies that provided a lot of, if one likes, low-level manufacturing jobs for young people who had left school, some with disabilities, who could be trained on the job. They made a real and meaningful contribution to the workforce and, indeed, played a major role in society. Today, unfortunately, those opportunities are not there. Many young people are falling through the cracks and are not getting an opportunity to participate fully in the workforce. We need to invest more heavily in further education for these people and also to devise an opportunity to give them a chance to gain the work experience that will enable them to obtain employment in an appropriate setting.

I wish the Minister of State well in everything he is doing. I hope the recently announced Springboard Plus programme will achieve its goals and that we will be back here in the near future hoping to build on its successes as we go forward.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I will try to deal with most of the questions I have been asked. I want to thank Senator Jim D'Arcy and other colleagues for putting forward this motion, which gives us a great opportunity to discuss the success of Springboard and the whole initiative in that regard. It is also an opportunity to contribute to the debate and to acknowledge all the great work that was done by many people around this initiative.

Springboard is one of the best initiatives I have come across. When in opposition, I often spoke about trying to get good value for money, and if we can solve two problems with one initiative it is a great idea. In this case, we are doing that. We are getting people who are unemployed back into work - a new career or a new start - but we are also filling a skills gap. Industry and business do not have the skills they need, and they need a quick conversion course, such as Springboard's ICT conversion course, to provide those skills. Therefore, we are solving two problems with the same money, which is what we should try to do across as many Departments as possible.

It is a great initiative and one I cannot compliment enough. I was delighted to be part of the recent launch and to have been part of the team working on that. The HEA does great work, with Tom Boland and Mary-Liz Trant leading the charge for Springboard, along with Senator Feargal Quinn and his team of experts, who are judging this and choosing the successful people to provide the Springboard courses each year. They have done great work in recent years and I want to compliment them on that. It is a very sound programme. Senators Craughwell and Cummins are right that anyone who tries to detract from this is wrong or misinformed and needs to be corrected.

The whole agenda of further education and training needs to be talked up a lot more, as people can sometimes turn their backs on it. Senator Mooney is right in saying that people did turn their backs on it during the boom times, when it was put to one side and forgotten about. It is a question of the blend. We will only solve our skills shortage with a blend of further education and training, as well as higher education. This must come at the right time and it will suit different people in different places. It is wrong to say that further education and training is only for those who are not academically suited. Further education and training is suited to anybody, no matter what their academic skills are. For me, further education and training is a great way to develop a career. If people want to add higher education they can do that, and go up to any level they want. It is not only for those who are not academically suited. That is the problem. Most of us start our comments with that line, but we need to make sure that is not the way it happens. Very often, a start on a PLC course is the best way to prepare a person to go on to higher education, get them ready for university and enable them to cope with all the demands there. A start on a PLC course can equip people to become very academically minded and ready to take on any course, including a degree course at any university.That is what we need to understand. It is a question of the mindset and conversation about this. We are spending almost a billion on further education and training, FET. Although Senators may not realise it, we have a massive spend. We do not sell it enough or explain what it actually stands for, where it is or where we want to go with it. I would disagree with the Senator's report of people's thoughts on SOLAS. I think SOLAS is one of the best authorities we have set up and it is only warming up. There is a great team of people there who are very in tune with what is needed. They have their strategy plans and their five-year plans and lots of consultation; they are on the ball and are ready for this. It will mean changes in many cases with education and training boards, ETBs, that might not always like it. As the driving authority behind FET, SOLAS is right and I am happy with its work. I would dispute anyone who says they have doubts around it.

I asked the Senator to repeat what he said about the number of ETBs that applied to be part of these new apprenticeships. There is something wrong there; it is a wrong statement. It was not a secret that there was a public call-out for anybody to submit a proposal through the new apprenticeship council. There is new, independent apprenticeship council to design and take proposals for all the new types of apprenticeship. Its work is facilitated by SOLAS.

We really want to change our apprenticeship agenda. For too long we have had a limited number of apprenticeships - fewer than 30 in the areas of construction, mechanical and engineering. That is not good enough. We are looking to Germany and Austria, where there is a choice of 300 or 400. While I cannot see us having that number - I do not think we would need it - there is no reason we could not have up to 100 types of apprenticeship route.

Over half of the 86 proposals that came in were industry led, as they should be. Apprenticeships have to be employer led or they will not work, although they should be facilitated by ETBs, institutes of technology and everybody else. The ETBs should develop and provide the courses. I refute the comment that they were not encouraged. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, took great time to pick the right people and, as far as possible, every sector is represented on the apprenticeship council.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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I was not saying they were not asked.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I know the Senator was not saying it, but he was quoting it and it needs to be eliminated. It is wrong to say they were not asked. The ETBs are on the apprenticeship council and Martin O'Brien does a great job there. I spoke about the apprenticeship council's call for proposals at every speech I gave, and I gave a lot speeches in the eight months since I took up this job. It was definitely no secret and if people in the industry did not know there was a call, there is something wrong.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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There is something wrong, definitely.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I would say the problem is at their end because this was well publicised. If those in the industry and the sector are on top of their jobs, they should know about it. It would certainly not be the fault of SOLAS.

The motion is about trying to expand Springboard to cater for other areas. Senator Jim D'Arcy mentioned the issue of low-paid workers and this is a perfect opportunity to look at that through the new skills strategy and the reform. The motive of the Government parties for the past four or five years was to tackle unemployment. We came in with unemployment at 15% and heading for 20% - that is what everyone said and no one disputed those figures. Our aim had to be to get unemployment back down and give long and short-term unemployed people an opportunity to get back into a job. A big part of that was upskilling and re-skilling people and that is what Springboard was there for. It was targeted generally at those who were unemployed. One does not have to be unemployed to do an ICT conversion course.

There is still a long way to go, as 10% unemployment is still far too high and there are loads of people out there who want a job. Now, however, we need to focus on upskilling people who are in employment, such as low-paid workers and others who need to keep their job in a company, for whom upskilling or retraining by getting involved in FET is the only way to have a safe career. Everyone has to be constantly upskilling now and moving with the times, no matter who or what they are. That is the agenda.

I would agree with the motive of the motion. The idea is right and if we have Springboard or some other initiative, that is where we are going. I will come back to the success of Springboard. As regards the jobs end of it, we have had the Action Plan for Jobs process. Although people laughed and saw red and so on, most people now accept that it worked. It focused the minds of every Government Department, every Government agency and many beyond that. It is up to all of us to try and turn around the jobs crisis.

The target set out in the Action Plan for Jobs was to create 100,000 jobs by 2016. I was concerned the target was high - it had to be ambitious but I was worried the Government would be accused of not achieving it. Although most people did not think it was possible, the figure of 100,000 was reached a couple of weeks ago in the private sector. All of us have helped through our strategies, documents and reports. The Government's job was to create the environment, not to create the jobs. The private sector has created over 100,000 net new jobs on top of job losses. We have had over 30,000 people leaving the public sector and many job losses in that period. We are now back at a little over 1.9 million people at work and our target is 2.1 million people. We will only achieve that if we are able to upskill workers and get those who are unemployed back into a job.

We also need to bring people home, an issue close to Senator Mooney's heart. We will not achieve our target if we do not attract at least 100,000 people back home to take up jobs. While those targets are for 2018, we want to go further by 2020. To get to full employment - where everyone who wants a job has one - by 2018, we will need lots of new skills developed as many new jobs will come on stream. There are not enough people in the domestic market to fill all those jobs.

There are options here and the achievement of the 100,000 target proves that full employment by 2018 is possible. I am working with all the companies, organisations and Departments in the sector and have no doubt it will be achieved. We aim to fill as many as possible of those jobs from the domestic market. That brings us back to the success of Springboard and other initiatives. When I got this job from the Taoiseach, the message was very clear that we cannot have a situation in which there are thousands of jobs created that cannot be filled by people from the domestic market. That means people who are living here and coming through our education system; it does not matter what nationality they are. There is a major skills gap which we are trying to fill through ICT courses, Springboard, Momentum, Pathways to Work and all the other initiatives, by bringing people close to a job, into a job or into work placements with companies.

There has been a lot of reform in all our agencies. The ETBs, which were previously the VECs, have gone from 33 to 16 in number. It was a difficult time for everybody with all the change over the past two or three years - SOLAS is only here since 2013. The ETBs have only just finished going through their change and there are still staffing issues to be sorted out. I thank everyone involved in that reform, which has put us in the position to be able to take on the skills gap and close it.

All our educational partners - the ETBs, ITs, PLC providers and higher education institutions - have become more industry focused and outward focused. We need to engage with industry to know what its needs are and provide the necessary skills. While education is not just about taking up a job, that is a major part of it. We must talk to employers regularly and link with them. Many of Senators have mentioned that the Springboard courses are designed in conjunction with employers, as are many of our other programmes. That is where we have to be and we now have the reforms to do it and to drive on. We should let SOLAS do its work as the authority behind this. We should listen to and engage with employers at every point along the way. There is no point in turning out graduates in the wrong area as they are just going to go abroad. That is not going to serve us. While we are making progress, there is work to do.

A couple of other comments were made and I will go through them as best I can if I have time. Senator Quinn referred to the issue of qualifying criteria for the ICT conversion courses. People do not have to be on social welfare to qualify. To be able to retain social welfare in the form of a back to education allowance, a person has to be able to show they have been on the live register for nine of the previous 12 months. I am assuming that is the criteria to which the Senator is referring and it is something we should look at. I do not like these cut-offs where someone does not qualify because they are a week or a month short. To be clear, it is possible to qualify for one of those courses without being on social welfare.

One of the good aspects of Springboard is that it is open to self-employed people whose company went wrong for whatever reason.They can now participate on a Springboard course, be retrained, acquire a new skill and start a new career. People have had great success from participating in that initiative. The self-employed often feel left out and that the country has neglected them. In some cases they may be right and in other cases they might not, but the Springboard initiative is open to everybody. One need not be in receipt of a social welfare payment to participate in it, but one has to sign on for credits. In the past one had to be in receipt of a social welfare payment before one could qualify for it, but now it is sufficient for people to be signing on for credits. Therefore, some progress has been made.

Senator Quinn, Senator Craughwell and others mentioned the shortage of foreign language skills. That issue has been brought to my attention by quite a number of companies. We all know about that and have plenty of evidence on it because we are constantly checking the data and analysing what is needed. A new modern language strategy is being designed and worked on by the Department of Education and Skills to cater for all levels of education right throughout the system to examine how we can tackle this issue. We will not be able to fill all the jobs that have a language demand because in some cases the companies require native-level proficiency in speaking a language, and people who are not from the country whose language is required might never be able to achieve that standard. Learning foreign languages does not sit easy with Irish people, but we have to change that mindset. I remember discussing this with the Higher Education Authority a number of years ago at a committee and asking why we were not providing options for students to study foreign languages, but it turned out that the options are provided and students are not selecting them. The universities and institutes of technology have courses with a foreign language component but students are not selecting those courses because they are avoiding the requirement to study a foreign language. We have to get the message into the heads of students and their parents that if a student takes up a foreign language he or she is likely to have a better, stronger or more secure career because there is a demand for people with language skills. However, students are not doing that and we have to work on it. I understand this issue must be tackled at primary level into secondary and on to third level.

Similarly, in the area of information technology, an IT deficiency cannot be solved at third level; IT must be a feature of primary and secondary level. Hopefully, we can reflect the change that is needed in the business strategy that will be coming out. There is no doubt that we must tackle that issue.

Hundreds of thousands of new Irish or non-Irish people are living and working in this country. Some of them are in low-paid jobs and some are in well-paid jobs, but they have language skills that we need at the higher end. We must be prepared to work with those people and try to reskill or convert them over and let them fill the jobs for which there is a language skill demand. Their jobs would then be freed up for others to take up and start off in. There is that category. We will not solve the language problem with our new strategy in the next two or three years - it will take a long-term solution - but we need short-term solutions to fill those jobs. People living in this country are well fit to take them up. There is an onus on all of us to get our heads around that and put an effort into joining the dots. Hopefully, we can do that.

Deputy Maurice Cummins spoke about the massaging of figures and asked if the figures were real in terms of the jobs. I dealt with that point. Springboard is a great initiative. I want to be clear on this. People often question whether the 100,000-plus net new jobs that have been created are real jobs and well-paid jobs. They are real, well-paid jobs and the majority of them are full-time. More than half of them have been created through the IDA and Enterprise Ireland - these jobs are generally regarded as well-paid jobs, and they are full-time. It is often said that we are taking people off the live register with activation schemes, but we are not. To give members a rough idea of the figures, during the so-called boom years, approximately 75,000 people were on labour activation schemes, and the figure now is approximately 80,000. It is not that 100,000 people have been put on activation schemes - that is not the case. There was always a need for activation schemes and there always will be a need for them. There is always an onus on us to constantly tweak them and make them better and bring people closer to a job, and that is what we must work on.

That brings me on to the JobBridge scheme, of which some contributors were critical, and the scheme that was mentioned by Senators Ó Domhnaill and Kathryn Reilly, who quoted the Nevin Institute's report. I have read that report and I spoke to those who were involving in writing it. They admit that the scheme was brought in in a hurry. It was not ever going to be perfect, but it served quite well at the time. They say it needs to be reformed and changed. Nobody is against that. The Department of Social Protection has agreed to examine it to see if it can be tweaked or improved. It can be open to abuse in some cases. An impression has been given that everyone is abusing it, but that is not the case. JobBridge is an amazing initiative. The idea for developing it came through our committee, and Members may recall that we recommended an examination of the internships used abroad. We developed JobBridge to give people a chance to get close to working and to get into a job. Most employers will say it is not sufficient for a person to have completed college and have a slip of paper certifying that; they also need to have job experience. People are getting that now through JobBridge. It is wrong to say it has been abused right, left and centre. It has been abused by some, who are being dealt with when caught - and rightly so - but the majority do not abuse it and they do quite well out of it. More than 60% of people get a job from it eventually or end up in employment. That is extremely high compared to labour activation measures internationally. I would defend it while acknowledging that we can always improve it by tweaking it, which we will do. It should not be claimed that everybody is abusing it, because that would be wrong and would be unfair to all those who have done quite well out of what is quite a good scheme.

I want to make sure I cover all the issues that have been raised. I dealt with the skills gap. The issue of apprenticeships was raised. To update members, we are moving to a new type of apprenticeship. The apprenticeship councils were set up. Members might pass on this information to Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill, who has left the Chamber. Eighty-six submissions have been received, and these are being analysed and worked on by the apprenticeship council with the assistance of SOLAS and the Department of Education and Skills. They will bring forward their recommendations to myself and Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, in mid- to late June, and we will then make a decision on which of them can be rolled out quickly. I would hope that we will have some new apprenticeships on offer this autumn and winter, and certainly in 2016 there will be a roll-out. With some luck, most of the 86 submissions may be taken into account, although probably not all of them because quite a number of them are in certain areas, but we will work on that and add to that. The rolling out of apprenticeships is taking place. We should discuss apprenticeships further, because it is a very good way to go. I note that Senator Leyden is nodding at me. The ESB is leading the way in this regard, having announced another 300 new apprenticeships. I was at the launch of that announcement a few months ago. Eircom and other companies are doing the same. I will call on more State bodies to take on apprenticeships. This is the way we will proceed. The blend of vocational training and higher education is the perfect way for individuals to develop a skill and a career, and it is important to work with industry to create jobs by closing the gap they have in filling jobs.

There was talk of job losses in Monaghan and so on. I believe we can certainly find a solution to those job losses, because people are highly skilled and trained. We will work with industry to try to get the qualifications of those in employment accredited and upgraded. Many people with great qualifications have been working in companies for 20 or 30 years, but those qualifications are not written down as such. We have to work with them to get that done as well.

The national talent drive is part of the Action Plan for Jobs. It involves filling gaps locally. In the short term we will work with companies where they have to bring in skills from abroad. We will change the permit system to allow for that in the short term, on condition that those people who come in are part of the retraining and upskilling initiative, and we will work to make sure the skills are provided in the domestic market as well.

There is a good deal of public consultation taking place though all the elements of our strategy. The issue of post leaving certificate courses, PLCs, was raised. I do not believe we cut the number of the PLC places last year, but I may stand corrected on the figures; I think the figures were the same. It is wrong to say they were cut, and they certainly should not be.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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Research has shown-----

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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That is grand, but the Senator's research might be out of date. It is certainly not reflected in 2015, because we did not cut the places.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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I think the Minister of State will find that the number of PLC places is falling and, as Senator Mooney pointed out, the absence of career guidance has caused-----

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I will come to that. I agree with the value of career guidance, but we did not cut the funding for it. One of the first aspects of SOLAS's work this year is a review of PLC places to determine whether we are getting value for money, which I believe we are, whether we need more places and whether we can add to the number. A major review of the provision of PLC places is under way this year. The findings of that might involve the reallocation of places around the country, in that some areas may need more places and other areas may not be availing of all the places they have. I have three letters on my desk this week from bodies seeking extra PLC places. In certain areas the offering of PLC places may not be taken up. That will be investigated. The PLC sector is a very important part of the education strategy. I want to be clear in stating that the numbers were not cut this year.

I have continued on this for too long, and I might return to other comments that were made. The general consensus is that people would agree that Springboard is doing great work. We want to build on that and to develop similar new initiatives. We have much to go on with in this area. It is a very important area and I will be fighting for more resources and money for it. We have brought the apprenticeship issue to Cabinet and they were all every enthusiastic about it. I said, "If that is the case, write the cheque and put the money behind it." Pressure will be put on to have increased spending in this sector. I think the Members would agree with that and that this is the way to do it. We have a major issue with jobs coming on stream and we have people who are still unemployed in certain areas, and we have to close that gap and bring them together. I look forward to working with the Members on this and coming back to them on it. I might have missed some of the questions that were raised, but I will certainly come back at a later stage and I can also meet people individually.

Photo of Jim D'ArcyJim D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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I thank my fellow Senators for their great and generous contributions to this debate and for their recognition of the value of Springboard and its benefits, past and future, for many people. To address Senator Craughwell's point, Oscar Wilde said that he could not help liking anyone who liked him. I thank the Senator for his generous remarks and will reciprocate by saying that he is extremely interested in education and training boards, ETBs, and further education and training, as is every Member present. For example, Senator Mooney has made good contributions on this matter.

As a member of the Council of Europe, I contributed to a report by Dr. Piotr Wach, another member, on raising the status of vocational education and training. I will circulate it to Members, including the Minister of State. In the German model, there is a 50:50 split between further education and degree-level education, which arose because of its guild system. This model seems to be working. With the Minister of State as the pilot, we are increasing the status and value of further education and training. It is the way forward. The people training in further education and training centres will be the millionaires and entrepreneurs who employ degree holders in the years to come. We must continue supporting and enhancing this sector.

Mr. Martin O'Brien from Monaghan was mentioned. What a man. All of the ETBs' CEOs and members are working so hard that the future is bright.

As the Minister of State will agree, all of the Senators present have been generous in their comments on Springboard and have resisted the temptation to kick us in the shins. That is because, first, they are fair people and, second, it is a good programme. The Minister of State has, in principle, supported my suggestion of considering ways of extending the concept of Springboard to the low-paid so as to provide increased mobility in the jobs market and, in an aspirational society, not to close doors on anyone. This is the great value of our new system. One can do an apprenticeship and still be on the ladder to gaining a PhD.

I was captivated by the Minister of State's response, enthusiasm, expertise, detailed knowledge and passion for increasing every worker's self-esteem.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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Ar 10.30 maidin amárach.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.45 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 28 May 2015.