Tuesday, 6 July 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Community Employment Schemes
I have no wish for us to be in a situation where we have to wait until we have full employment again before women returners become a major priority for the Government. Many women did the State a service by caring for their families and loved ones. Often they did so because the supports that would have enabled choice simply were not there. I know this because I did it myself. Workplace inflexibility, a lack of accessible and affordable childcare and the unpaid nature of care continue to be key factors. We have a real issue because of women dropping out of the workforce to undertake care duties, but we have a similar problem in getting them back to work even when their children are older and even though these women are more likely to have third level qualifications. The participation rate of women is 63.7%. That is not too far behind the EU average of 64.2% but it falls far below competitive economies like Germany, which has a rate of over 72% and a figure of more than 10% between men and women participation rates.
Covid-19 has set us back again and we have been disproportionately affected. We are more likely to work in jobs where workers are more vulnerable to getting Covid. We are more likely to work in jobs where staff are vulnerable to losing employment because of Covid. Women are more likely to own businesses that have been impacted upon and are more likely to have taken leave or to have worked longer hours in trying to juggle work, home schooling and care duties. Women who spent more time in unpaid or domestic duties prior to Covid became the brunt bearers during the Covid lockdown.
The roles played by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Department of Social Protection have been phenomenal in getting people through the crisis with access to the pandemic unemployment payment, wage subsidies and grant schemes.
As we emerge from the crisis of Covid into addressing the long-term effects of Covid on labour participation rates, are we going to do enough to address the female labour participation gap? This is relevant not only for those who lost their jobs because of Covid or those still vulnerable to losing their jobs if the recession sticks, but for those who previously took career breaks and may now be further down the pecking order when it comes to labour activation policies.
I welcome the Minister of State commenting on the matter today. I know that work is ongoing with Springboard opportunities. Over 10,000 places are available on nearly 300 courses for unemployed, self-employed or returners to work. ICT graduate conversion courses are on offer for upskilling and reskilling in important new areas like cybersecurity and climate sustainability. In 2019, the then Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Senator Doherty, announced a new returnship programme. In the programme for Government, it is acknowledged that there is a commitment to returnships through new education, training and personal development programmes. This is especially important to the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science as part of the Her STEM skills programme. Yet, there seem to be disadvantages for women who have not worked for more than two years and who were not claiming social welfare during that period.They cannot access community schemes that might suit them. A woman from Donegal got in touch with me to say that she has experienced this herself. She completed a two-year FETAC level 5 course in childcare in 2019 and got a distinction in all the modules except one, in which she got a merit. It was a massive achievement for her, having been out of work looking after her own kids. There were many opportunities to apply for part-time roles that would have been ideal for her but she could not because she was not eligible for any schemes. The Minister of State might have some advice for her. People in my community and in organisations that benefit from community schemes want access to women like her and she wants access to them as well. The hours suit, the locations suit and the situation suits. I ask the Minister of State for an update on how this will factor into the Pathways to Work 2021-2025 strategy.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir. I am taking this question on behalf of the Minister for Social Protection. The Department of Social Protection, through its Intreo service, provides a range of employment supports to assist individuals, including women returning to work, to gain and sustain employment. Intreo's teams of case officers and job coaches across the country provide a one-to-one career advice service and tailored employment supports for all jobseekers, including those who wish to return to work. These supports include the community employment scheme, which aims to provide work experience and targeted training interventions for long-term unemployed people within their communities. The programme is designed to help break the cycle of unemployment and improve a person's chances of returning to the labour market.
Community employment is open to women who want to return to work after a break, provided they meet the standard eligibility criteria. In order to qualify, a number of conditions must be met, including being in receipt of a qualifying social welfare payment for a specific period. In addition to the supports currently provided by Intreo, the Government is supporting a range of further initiatives and measures to assist people in their journey back to employment under the economic recovery plan and the forthcoming Pathways to Work 2021-2025 strategy. As set out under the Government's economic recovery plan, which was launched on 1 June 2021, a central focus of the recovery process will be supporting people back into employment, with an overall ambition of exceeding pre-crisis employment levels by reaching 2.5 million people in work by the end of 2024. It is important, as the Senator outlined, that people have quality employment and pay equality.
Central to achieving this ambition will be the forthcoming national employment services strategy, Pathways to Work 2021-2025. By increasing labour market supports and providing employment support, activation and skill opportunities, the Pathways to Work strategy will act as a key delivery mechanism of the economic recovery plan's second pillar, Helping People Back into Work. Pathways to Work will outline how the public employment service will work with people through its existing and expanded capacity to deliver job support services in a post-Covid labour market. Measures under this new strategy will include provision of an additional 50,000 education and training places and a new work placement experience programme. This new programme will be open to all jobseekers, including women who have been out of work for at least six months. That might offer some support in respect of the case the Senator outlined.
As part of its work for those seeking to return to the workforce, Intreo hosted the first Career Pathways for Returners event in Trinity College Dublin in March 2020. The event provided jobseekers with information on work placements and opportunities to upskill or retrain and offered them the opportunity to take the next step in their careers. The event including testimonials from people who had re-launched their careers and the supports that assisted them on their journey. Attendees also had an opportunity to meet and speak with employers, some of whom had dedicated returner initiatives. The Department of Social Protection plans to build on these kinds of initiatives under the new Pathways to Work strategy, which the Minister for Social Protection hopes to launch alongside the new work placement experience programme later this month. These are worthwhile initiatives.
Post Covid, many people, and many women in particular, are thinking about going in a whole new direction in their lives and careers and we want to provide the opportunities for them to do that. The gender pay gap Bill that was introduced by the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is another supporting mechanism, as is the work being done around community development by the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien. Community development pilot projects could provide an opportunity for women who have a valuable set of skills to offer a community to find work.
I thank the Minister of State for that positive response. It is good to know that returners are firmly on the agenda. It is very difficult when people are facing going back to work, and if the odds are stacked against them or if there are unnecessary barriers it just makes it harder. We are definitely moving in the right direction. As part of this, we have to ensure that the Pathways to Work strategy covers the spectrum of situations and scenarios, as well as the skills and experience people want. What appeals at the moment about access to community schemes is that they are in people's communities. People could work in the community centre where the crèche is, for example, which would feel familiar to them. We have to put ourselves in those people's shoes and think about what it is like to return to work. We must deliver opportunities for everyone.
I agree wholeheartedly with the Senator. I know from experience that many women who started off in community employment schemes in family resource centres, FRCs, or community development projects, were able to move on through additional training or returning to education to fantastic careers and could offer something valuable back to their communities. It is vitally important that we offer those supports through the Pathways to Work strategy, for women in particular, to ensure they have a viable path forward.
The childcare issue is also critical and the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, is keen to ensure there is a set of reforms in place to support the childcare sector to provide a wide range of services for women who wish to return to full-time or part-time employment. They might have a flexible arrangement in order to balance their work and life in a way that manages their families and provides the opportunity to give back to their communities, as they wish to do. The Senator made her point extremely well and I hope these combined initiatives will provide that level of support.