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  • Is JobBridge, the national internship scheme, an excuse for cheap labour?

    June 29, 2011 @ 7:30 am | by Laura Slattery

    Carnage in the labour market has been so complete during this recession that employers are no longer employers, but host organisations. At least, that’s what the companies who take on temporary workers under the Government’s internship scheme, JobBridge, will be called. But is the National Internship Scheme an excuse for cheap labour? That’s one of the questions posed in a Q&A attached to the Department of Social Protection’s press advisory on the scheme, launched by Joan Burton at Facebook’s Dublin offices this morning.

    The Department’s answer to its own question, unsurprisingly, is no. “The National Internship Scheme provides an opportunity for those seeking employment to gain valuable work experience in a host organisation. The scheme aims to keep participants close to the labour market with the goal of improving their employability so that they enhance their prospects of securing employment upon completion.”

    Places will be advertised on from Friday.

    Internships, it would seem to me, are a good idea in principle, but in practice the exploiting devil often lies in the exploitative detail – the pay, or lack of it; the length of scheme (too long on little or no pay and clearly the host’s motivations lie solely in cutting its payroll); the quality of the training and experience provided; and the resulting employability potential (whether at the “hosting” company or at another employer who likes the look of an internship on a CV).

    In this case, the pay is just €50 a week above social welfare entitlements and the term of the internship is six to nine months. It’s impossible to know what the resulting employability potential will be, partly because it’s impossible to know what the state of the labour market will be in six to nine months’ time, which just serves as a reminder that 5,000 places in JobBridge, however advantageous it may prove for some individuals, isn’t a substitute for a job creation policy.

    Indeed, the Department is obviously concerned by the risk that the scheme may actually deter employers from recruiting at full pay. One of the conditions for employers is that the internship can’t be provided to displace an existing employee, nor should the intern carry out work for which a vacancy is being advertised. The organisers say they reserve the right to review the participation of companies where these practices are alleged.

    The level of interest from companies in JobBridge is described by Burton as “strong”. Some 320 small businesses have committed to 590 places, while the larger companies to have signed up to the scheme include Dawn Foods, KPMG, Arthur Cox, Mercury Engineering, Hertz, ESB, Bord na Móna, Tesco, PricewaterhouseCoopers, A&L Goodbody and Aer Lingus. And why not? With the Department paying the €50 per week payment, there is no direct cost to playing host.

    Burton, whose job it is to be optimistic, says she hopes that some of the employers who “find talented and motivated interns” will then offer them an actual job: “In other words, the period of internship would be a job interview for a longer period of employment.”

    The pressure that this thought will put interns under will undoubtedly be immense.

  • Feminine, sexy, fun-loving Jane Norman has gone into administration

    June 27, 2011 @ 4:25 pm | by Laura Slattery

    Jane Norman has gone into administration, the latest casualty of recession-related fashion fatigue, the result of which 1,600 jobs in the UK and Ireland are at risk. The British women’s clothing chain has been struggling with debts of £140 million and a depressed retail sector at a time when input costs are rising. However, it’s not too much of a stretch to also blame its woes on the twin spectres of Primark and the obesity epidemic.

    Jane Norman specialises in the 16-25 age group – with the emphasis on the sweet sixteen end of the scale – which means its dresses tend to be doll-like confections of viscose and elastane, with a fondness for jewel embellishments, netted underskirts and an abnormally high frequency of halternecks. Where a mother-daughter shopping phenomenon was embraced by the likes of Topshop and its profitable ilk, body-conscious styling more or less ruled that out at Jane Norman.

    “While our core market falls into the 16-25 age bracket, our style is more about a state of mind than a specific demographic,” the 59-year-old company claims on its website, to which the obvious reply is “your demographic is all too specific”. Today, Twitter is awash with tweets lamenting that Jane Norman’s stock didn’t fit a) anyone over the age of 21 b) black women and c) anyone of any race who isn’t anorexic. Only its employees will miss it is the tenor of an unhealthy chunk of the online reaction.

    “The Jane Norman girl is feminine, sexy, fun-loving and confident,” declares the company website, to which you can add “broke”. Though its stock has improved of late, traditionally its dresses looked and felt unnecessarily cheap – as if life was a permanent hen night for petites – which would be fine, except it wasn’t cheap, it was significantly pricier than the Primark / Penneys trading round the corner, to where its customers have presumably long since departed.

    The fate of its 90 UK stores and a similar number of Debenhams concessions – plus seven standalone stores and six Debenhams concessions in Ireland – now hangs in the balance. It’s been suggested that the administrators, the accountancy group Zolfo Cooper, will be able to swiftly sell it on in what’s known as a “pre-pack administration” to either Debenhams or Edinburgh Woollen Mill, saving its workforce, or most of it.

    UPDATE 28/06/2011: Edinburgh Woollen Mill has purchased 33 of the 94 Jane Norman stores, saving 396 of the jobs. A further 740 jobs related to Jane Norman concessions are still at risk, but 390 jobs have unfortunately been lost across the UK and Ireland. Five of the Irish stores are to close, though the Sligo store is to remain open. Apologies to any employee offended by my comments about Jane Norman clothes in this blog, which is meant as an analysis of just some of the business/market factors behind the company’s difficulties.

  • The light at the end of the media tunnel

    June 18, 2011 @ 10:33 am | by Laura Slattery

    “There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Independent News & Media chief executive Gavin O’Reilly at the company’s recent agm.  At this point, my mind turned, as it tends to do in these situations, to a song by relentlessly sardonic indie perennials Half Man Half Biscuit. It’s called The Light at the End of the Tunnel (Is the Light from an Oncoming Train).

    Then it switched to The Thick of It’s spin doctor Malcolm Tucker explaining to Westminster hacks that he’s invited them around for a curry because he thinks they should have one big square meal before they end up living off their own faeces. “I know that these are hard times for print journalists, yeah. I mean, I read that… on the internet.”

    Meanwhile, O’Reilly qualified his tunnel metaphor. “It’s not a blinding light – we’re not going to emerge blinking into 2012.” But all his publications were profitable, he assured shareholders. “There is a light.”

    In the end, the INM agm was so overshadowed by corporate tensions – a fist-fight expressed via proxy votes rather than actual punches – that anything positive O’Reilly tried to say about his underlying business just became a shield in his battle with Denis O’Brien. That was a shame. Selfishly, as an employee of a newspaper I am more interested in the uncertain fate of traditional media companies than the latest tit-for-tat between millionaire-billionaire businessmen – though, of course, the two have been historically intertwined.

    This week, I met Alan Crosbie, chairman of Thomas Crosbie Holdings, which as the publisher of The Irish Examiner and The Sunday Business Post is in direct competition with INM and, to a lesser extent, The Irish Times. Speaking in TCH’s corporate HQ on Cork’ s South Mall, there was some similarity between his views and the comments O’Reilly made at his company’s Aviva Stadium agm.

    Alan Crosbie said this: “I think the biggest problem in Irish markets is the UK papers. They pay no VAT over there, there’s no VAT on the bulk of their circulation. Then they publish here and pretend to be Irish… The only other place this happens in the world is a little bit on the border between Austria and Germany… I respectfully suggest that if it happened in any other democracy, people would be jumping up and down. It’s treating newspapers as if they were any other industry. They’re one of the pillars of democracy as far as I’m concerned.”

    Faced with an assembly of not-angry-just-disappointed shareholders, O’Reilly didn’t invoke any pillars of democracy. But when asked a delightfully optimistic question by the representative of a South African shareholder about when circulation would start to grow, the INM chief executive said this: “You are right to observe that circulation figures have come off. At the time we have had increased competition, particularly from the UK titles, all of which are loss-making I might add – all of our competitors are loss-making.”

    Only recently the INM board of directors had observed it was “remarkable” that no titles had gone out of business this year (apart from the INM-funded The Sunday Tribune, of course), O’Reilly noted. “It’s a fairly unreal market,” he sighed. “If dysfunctional competition in Ireland continues, it will be hard to see volume increases, but I suggest [such competition] is unsustainable.”

    The loss-making UK publications that O’Reilly and Crosbie say are creating an unreal, dysfunctional market can’t pull out of Ireland without taking an unpleasant hit on their all-important circulation totals. Still, the idea that they might to do so is a flickering light of hope for the newspaper groups that compete with them. If the bid to keep circulation up by vanquishing physical competitors is the short-term battle, however, the longer-term, more serious threat of total eclipse comes from online.

    From INM’s Independent Woman micro-site to TCH’s decision to brand its main news website as, Irish newspaper groups are following the Daily Mail and The Guardian path of differentiating the tone and style of their websites from their newspapers, in order to preserve the perceived worth of the latter. In recognition of changed reader patterns and in preparation for a print-free future, The Guardian has already reached the stage of signalling it will remove some of the space devoted to “straight” breaking news reports in its print edition – making it more Newsnight rather than News at Ten was how editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger phrased it. Some £25 million of cutbacks from the print operation will be reinvested in its digital activities.

    Faced with plummets in advertising and circulation deemed likely to be irreversible, the Guardian Media Group has calculated that the risk of doing nothing is greater than the risk of banking more of their business on still revenue-challenged online models. But as Alan Crosbie said to me this week, “nobody really knows… No one knows how to make money out of online”.

    It’s either time to stop listening to Half Man Half Biscuit, take down the copy of the Future Exploration’s Newspaper Extinction Timeline on my office wall, and pretend none of this happening, or it’s time to start sucking up to some Malcolm Tuckers for a dinner invitation.

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