Retraining – but for what?

When the Irish Government introduced its supplementary Budget last month, amongst the cuts and savings there were some announcements of resources to support those who had lost their jobs or whose employment might be at risk. Annexe F of the Budget sets out the measures that the government is funding (mind you, from existing resources), and which in particular focused on training and education, with a total 23.435 places being made available in the education and training sectors. Overall these have been described as measures that will lead to ‘labour market activation’; in other words, an education and training stimulus.

Neither in the Budget Annexe nor in the Budget speech by the Minister for Finance was there any indication of what kind of training or education is envisaged. There is a widespread consensus that as people lose jobs they should be re-skilled or up-skilled to improve their chances of re-employment. It is hard to argue with that proposition. But I wonder whether, instinctively, we are preparing to train people to give them a way out of the recession of the late 1980s, rather than the current one. Back then education and training, in certain subjects in particular, equipped many people to take up employment in the growth industries of the early 1990s, where multinational companies investing in Ireland needed skilled workers for their manufacturing operations. This time it will be different, and the opportunities to be economically active will be different.

We will still need a skilled workforce in the computing industry, and indeed many of the opportunities will be in employment by international companies; but typically the skills needed will now be more advanced, with undergraduate degrees, but also postgraduate research degrees, likely to be in demand. We will need scientists and engineers with significant third and fourth level qualifications. But in particular, we will also need people who are equipped to create jobs rather than just occupy them. It is not likely that Ireland’s recovery will just be based on investments by global companies, though we can hope that some of that will happen. If we are to thrive again, we will need a far greater number of indigenous entrepreneurs setting up their own businesses and creating both economic activity and employment; and key elements of the ‘labour market activation’ package should focus on that. It will be vital to engage all students in the idea of being entrepreneurs, in diverse areas ranging from life sciences to culture and arts. From what I am seeing in the public discussions on all this, I am not sure that this point has been sufficiently understood.

But above all, we need to leave behind the popular notion in Ireland that the most prestigious, the most desirable employment is in the professions. We will still need lawyers and accountants and architects, but not as many. But we will need to have many more of those who will be their clients. We must become an enterprise nation. And universities in particular must lead the way.

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12 Comments on “Retraining – but for what?”

  1. Wendymr Says:


    If this is going to work, there needs to be a lot of thought put into the occupations for which people will be trained, and a lot of support in helping unemployed individuals to decide what to train for.

    I’m seeing the results of a poorly-managed system right now where I work. Problem: rising unemployment in Ontario and the disappearance of many formerly-in-demand occupations, particularly in automotive. Solution: pour millions of dollars into training programmes. Create a list of occupations which current labour market research suggests will be in demand (but nothing requiring more than two years of training). Get people into these programmes as soon as possible. Result: Ontario Second Career Strategy. Bingo: problem solved.

    Except not.

    First mistake: pushing people to make decisions on retraining quickly. People who’ve been made redundant, especially from very well-paying jobs after many years of secure employment, take time to recover from the shock and to go through the grieving process. They’re not in any frame of mind to make decisions on a career-change. These people get pushed through vocational assessments, most of which require that the participant has a fairly good understanding of their interests and values and are in the right frame of mind to have their aptitudes tested. It’s hardly surprising that people make decisions on retraining that probably aren’t the most sensible for them.

    Second mistake: failing to resource the application process properly. Clients seeking retraining have to be assessed by trained employment counsellors at one nominated agency to have a recommendation made on their application. The waiting list just for a first meeting with a counsellor at that agency: five months, in my area. Similar waiting times are found in other unemployment hot-spots. There are also waiting lists for all the vocational assessments clients are required to complete. By the time they finally get to start their application, many people’s unemployment benefit has run out. Oh, and the overworked employment counsellors don’t get time to do any actual counselling – so no time to reflect with the client on whether their choice of career is realistic or makes sense for them.

    Even if clients get their application together and approved, there has been no investment in the colleges and universities. Courses for September entry have been full since around February or March, with the exception of the (frankly, not up-to-par) private colleges. Belatedly, some new funding has been announced for educational establishments, but it’s too little, too late for this coming academic year.

    Third mistake: the narrow range of occupations covered – and even some of the occupations themselves. Truck (HGV) driving is one of them – yet in Ontario most of the employment in this area has been automotive-related. Haulage traffic in my part of the province is down by 60%… and people are being trained to work driving these things? Another example: my city has 40 qualified HVAC (heating and air-conditioning) engineers at present. There is scope for a few more, sure… but right now two hundred people are training in this field in the city. Similar stories can be told about many of the other eligible occupations.

    All that Second Career is doing is, effectively, shifting structural unemployment from automotive and other manufacturing to a different set of occupations. People will be graduating in 2010 and 2011 looking for work in their new fields, facing far too much competition for too few jobs, and facing the hurdle of being older applicants with no experience in their new field.

    Whatever the strategy decided on in Ireland, it’s got to avoid these kind of mistakes, funnelling people into too narrow a range of occupations without giving them time and proper help to decide on the right future for them. It’s as much about the individuals as it is about the country as a whole, and attention has to be directed at both the macro and micro levels in achieving the desired outcomes.

    • Wendy, thanks for those very interesting observations from Canada. Sometimes I fear that what these initiatives really have in mind is nothing more than keeping people off the dole queues for a little while, without too much thought being given to whether their studies equip them for anything much afterwards.

  2. Vincent Says:

    Where on the trip out of Platos’ cave do you stop to build and sell the jars. And while you are at it, ‘von’ and the ‘ski’, what’s with that.
    On the whole you are correct. We all fight the last war not the current one. But then we do not know what tactics will work in this fight, for the old one we do.

      • Vincent Says:

        Thanks, but it does not clear up the double ‘from’ or rather ‘of’.
        The name thing is in my mind at the moment since I went to visit my fathers grave on Omey island a few weeks ago. He and I carry a name so Gaelic that the anglo version of it does not change an iota of it. And that was something very confusing when everyone was doing their uttermost to find the Irish version, however implausible.
        You might, for the giggles, put ‘as on’ together with the ‘von’ and the ‘ski’. Surely some primary teacher has had a go at it.
        Oh, I was on about Glencree the other day. There is one of the calmest places on this earth on the bend of the road. A place in complete contrast with the horror of the buildings. It has welcomed a number of graves for WW1 German troops.

  3. Aoife Citizen Says:

    What is the natural home of the modern autodictate; what has replaced the libraries and evening classes and reading groups of yore? If I wanted to learn how to programme; or even programme a microprocessor, or tinker with electronics, or experiment with a web business, where would I go? Should the universities be providing glorified junk rooms for computer clubs and electronics clubs and makers clubs and the like?

    Qualifications and certification course in evil-company’s-software x should, of course, be available and is probably best provided, but maybe space for tinkering and supported learning and unstructured exploration is maybe what the universities could provide: a place where a self-made server built from secondhand computer parts runs a half-assed website someone is hoping will revolutionize the way we use the web while some cs students tries to help someone who has dropped in make a wearable device that converts directional information in to a variable skin pressure.

  4. “some cs students tries to help someone who has dropped in make a wearable device that converts directional information in to a variable skin pressure.”

    Gee, Aoife, I’ll go for that one, if you’re developing it.
    Ferdinand (gadget junkie)

    • Aoife Citizen Says:

      These things are very cool; after a few months the additional sense become integrated with your sense of the world, your memory. You start to live in a more directional world. There is a community around adding senses like this, a sense of direction, a sense of electricity, a heightened sense of humidity.

      Now ask yourself, how would I make one, how would I make one even if I was recently unemployed and had lots of time. Where would you go. Where would you go if you wanted to make an EEG machine or do any of the projects in Make magazine, or reprogramme a Roomba, or whatever. A university could provide this, rent some cheap space, studio style space, add catering and a manager and pay students to hang out there and help.

      • Aoife, this is a really important comment. One of the things universities need to do is to ask themselves whether the traditional academic setting is always right for all of those who might want to do things in our campuses – we need to have much more of a debate around this.

      • Aoife Citizen Says:

        Well give me a senior lectureship and a budget and this responsibility instead of lecturing and we can have it in place by September.

  5. Jilly Says:

    More power to you, Aoife!

  6. You mention in your article the need for architecs, lawyers etc. You still need the development and upskilling training of the blue collar worker to ensure productivity and growth. You cannot just rely on the service sector.

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