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.