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Contents for Issue March 2019

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EU Commission’s Country Specific Report 2019

"It is interesting, and somewhat disconcerting, that much of the focus on inclusion in the Country Report is on economic growth, rather than on the range of social and economic policies required to truly realize an inclusive labour market"

As part of the European Semester process, on 27th February 2019 the European Commission published their Staff Country Report on Ireland. Amongst the issues highlighted in the report’s Executive Summary were:

-          Employment continues to perform strongly.
-          Regional differences in skilled labour, competitiveness and productivity are sizeable.
-          Prioritising both public and private investment in infrastructure, decarbonisation, housing, innovation, skills and social inclusion is essential for sustainable and long-term inclusive growth.
-          The population at risk of poverty or social exclusion continues to fall, but child poverty remains a challenge with one in every ten children living in persistent poverty.
-          Childcare costs are the highest in the EU. The insufficient provision of affordable childcare remains the main impediment to increasing activity rates.
-          Even though Ireland’s labour market has improved significantly, the Participation Rate has yet to recover and remains quite flat.

On page four of the Country Report it says “The labour market has recovered well from a very sharp economic downturn a decade ago on the back of successful employment policy choices.” Later on page 37 it says “The JobPath activation programme has now been fully rolled out and the first results suggest that it has contributed significantly to the drop in long- term unemployment: 26 % of the 20 447 participants who completed the programme got a job (JobPath Performance Data, 2017).” The reality is that we don’t know exactly what role labour market policy has contributed to these developments as there has been insufficient external evaluation undertaken. So far the DEASP has not published the evaluation undertaken of Intreo, the biggest change in the design and provision of Ireland’s public employment services.* The DEASP have undertaken customer surveys on Intreo and JobPath, and produced performance data for JobPath, though curiously not for Intreo itself. The INOU has undertaken research on unemployed people’s experiences of the re-configured Public Employment Service and they are available at https://www.inou.ie/devproject/

On page 14 of the report it notes that “Most of the measures foreseen in the Action Plan for Jobless Households are yet to be implemented. In particular, integrated support for people furthest from the labour market needs to be improved. In addition, people with disabilities are still facing considerable challenges, although support is being enhanced.” A major challenge facing the DEASP is rolling out this Action Plan appropriately and its current method of engagement with service users will not suffice. The Intreo model is underpinned by the Genuinely Seeking Work criteria that are attached to a Jobseekers payment, an approach that often undermines the Public Employment Services initial engagement with service users. As noted in the INOU’s research in this area: “Readers of the reports from the previous two phases of this work will be familiar with the very strong negative impact that the wording of the invitation letter had on some recipients. The reaction to the wording of the letter in this phase of the project was similarly negative and evident across all the Focus Groups. The letter includes information inviting people to attend their local JobPath office at a scheduled time and date. The aspect of the letter that causes concern is the text in bold that advises the recipient that failure to attend the meeting may result in a reduction in a person’s Jobseeker’s payment. ‘I was worried about being cut-off [my payment]’ one of the Focus Group members advised.” (p10)

It is interesting, and somewhat disconcerting, that much of the focus on inclusion in the Country Report is on economic growth, rather than on the range of social and economic policies required to truly realize an inclusive labour market. To do the latter requires engaging with people of working age in a holistic manner, one that has their needs at its heart, one that strives to invest in them and their development, so that they can participate meaningfully in Irish society and its economy. The Country Report references Future Jobs Ireland on pages four, fifteen, forty-seven and sixty-one, with the focus firmly on addressing productivity concerns with indigenous SMEs and R&D. Yet, addressing life-long learning and skills gaps are an important aspect of Future Jobs Ireland 2019.

In the second 2018 Country Specific Recommendation it said “Prioritise the upskilling of the adult working-age population, with a focus on digital skills.” In Future Jobs Ireland 2019 it says that it will move the % of population with basic or above basic digital skills’ from the latest score of 48% (2017) to ≥ EU Average in 2025. In 2017 EU Average for the % of the population with basic or above basic digital skills was 57% (Targets table p51).

The challenge facing the State is twofold: how best to engage with people living in jobless households so that policies like Futures Jobs Ireland actually meet their needs and do not further exacerbate their distant relationship with the labour market; and secondly, how to ensure that people who are in employment can address their literacy and digital skills to ensure they maintain and improve their relationship with the labour market.

To read the full Country Report please follow this link https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/file_import/2019-european-semester-country-report-ireland_en.pdf 

*Since publishing this article the ESRI have published Research Series Number 81, March 2019 entitled "An Initial Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Intreo Activation Reforms" which can be accessed at https://www.esri.ie/system/files/publications/RS81.pdf