Tackling the unemployment crisis

burtonIt is “absolutely critical” that Ireland’s welfare system coverts from passive to active, according to Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton. Meadhbh Monahan reports.

In a stark analysis of the current welfare system, Minister Joan Burton has stated: “You become unemployed, you go on the dole, nobody goes near you and even when there are interventions, sometimes they aren’t particularly helpful.”

Unemployment currently stands at 14.9 per cent, the highest rate the State has ever experienced. While people coming off education programmes for the summer has resulted in the “spike” from 14.7 per cent last month, the Minister concedes that “what is happening is deeply worrying.”

In response, the Government launched a two-pronged approach to tackling the unemployment crisis; an Action Plan for Jobs to create employment, and the Pathways to Work policy aimed at ensuring that as many as possible of the job vacancies that are created are filled by people from the live register.

Pathways to Work’s core aims are to:
•    ensure more regular and on-going engagement with people who are unemployed through active case management and profiling (done with the ESRI);
•    provide for over 85,000 places on initiatives such as Job Bridge and Tús;
•    incentivise  the take up of opportunities by employers (such as the PRSI exemption scheme); and
•    transform and reform institutions to deliver better services to the unemployed through an integrated approach to employment and income support services.

Reform has already begun with 1,000 community welfare officers moving from the HSE to the Department of Social Development in October 2011 and 700 labour services staff from FÁS moving into the department in January 2012 (taking with them the local employment services and community employment schemes). Pathways to Work is currently trialling in King’s Inn on Parnell Street, Tallaght, Arklow and Sligo. The department aims to roll it out in a further ten offices later in the year.

However, there are concerns that these staff do not have the skills or knowledge of available schemes. Unemployment organisations fear that the department won’t be able to move from its current authoritative and processing role to that of assisting and enabling people to move off the live register and into work or a training programme.
Pathways to Work’s specific targets are, by 2015, to:
•    ensure that 75,000 of those long-term unemployed will move into employment;
•     reduce the average time spent on the live register from 21 months to less than 12 months;
•    ensure that the proportion of vacancies filled by the department’s employment services from the live register is at least 40 per cent; and
•    ensure that each person in receipt of a jobseeker payment fulfils their personal responsibility to engage fully with the employment and training supports provided by the State as a pre-condition for receipt of their welfare payments.

To date, the Minister is perplexed that more employers haven’t availed of incentives such as the PRSI exemption scheme. Speaking at an eolas Pathways to Work seminar, Minister Burton said: “We have to incentivise the take-up of opportunities and rebuild the relationships with employers through incentivising the provision of opportunities for people who are unemployed.” The PRSI exemption scheme is “a significant offer” as it amounts to 10 per cent of the wage cost for an 18 month period being borne by the State rather than the employer.
She speculated that low take-up may have something to do with pay roll being outsourced for many SMEs and said she is “open to doing some kind of direct cash-back at the end of a particular employment period.”

Labour activation schemes already underway include the JobBridge, Job Assist, Skillnets, Back to Education, Springboard and an allocation of €977 million for schemes such as community employment (temporary placements for long-term unemployed and disadvantaged people in the local community.)

In relation to JobBridge, Burton told eolas that as of the end of May, 7,363 people had internships. Initial feedback shows that 39 per cent (2,871) of interns secured employment immediately on the conclusion of their internship.  A more comprehensive analysis is currently underway.

Criticising employers, she said: “Lots of you will have heard people on the radio saying: ‘I offered two jobs, I couldn’t get anyone because they felt that their social welfare entitlements were compromised.’” In such cases, employers should contact their local social welfare office or an agency, give the job specification and interact with people “particularly at a local town or city level, who had the knowledge and information about [relevant] people on the live register,” the Minister advised.

She added: “Employers and people on the live register routinely think that they will lose their medical card. That’s not so. The provisions are there to allow medical card holders to hold onto them for up to three years.”

A major concern for Burton is that while “most people want to get back to work”, there is a danger that the longer they are out of work the lower their self-esteem and the weaker their networking capacity is. “Being out of the loop, they are not in the game, therefore, they are not always pitching for vacancies in the way that they might,” she noted.

Male unemployment is particularly worrying and is largely a result of the collapse of the construction industry. Burton is keen that schemes such as Skillnets, which has a strong link with employers, “will allow people who formerly worked very hard in construction to convert over to areas such as IT, pharma, medical devices, where we’ve a lot of multinational companies anxious to locate in Ireland and anxious to get very high quality candidates.”

A particular feature of the current cohort of unemployed is that many have good levels of education, knowledge, skills and valuable work experience. Burton told delegates: “It is incumbent on us to provide appropriate supports to assist with their re-engagement with the labour market.”

She added: “We have more IT jobs than we can fill. Nationally we’ve been seized of this idea that we are not good at maths or don’t do math.” This stigma has to be tackled, she insisted.

“Ireland is attractive to pharma, medical devices and IT multi-nationals [therefore] we have to match the enormous reservoir of talent and human capital with employers locating to this country.”

A “social contract” is needed whereby “as citizens of this state we support people who have become unemployed but equally those unemployed have a responsibility to get themselves job ready,” the Minister told eolas.

If people respond but don’t engage or don’t show up at all, the department will impose sanctions, she warned.

Ultimately, the aim is for an “integrated” pathways office that will “offer a much more interesting service to employers so that they can post vacancies with a view to getting people off the live register.”

The unemployment crisis

Unemployment:  14.9 per cent
Male unemployment: 18 per cent
Female unemployment: 12 per cent
Long-term unemployed: 61 per cent of the jobless

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