10,000 reasons for optimism
For the first time since the recession began five years ago, the number of people with jobs (1.85 million) has risen over a six-month period. That gives more solid grounds for optimism that a long recession is finally ending, and a slow economic recovery may be under way. In two consecutive quarters, from July to December last year, the growth in job numbers – some 10,000 according to the Central Statistics Office (CSO) quarterly employment survey – now may mark a turning point.
However, it also represents a small increase when set against the huge number of job losses – 318,000 – since 2008, when the economic downturn began. Nevertheless, encouraging news of job gains has been reinforced by February’s unemployment data. Live Register figures record a further fall, with 10,000 fewer signing on last month compared with a year ago, as the unemployment rate drops to 14.1 per cent. Ireland’s unemployment rate still remains among the highest in Europe, most notably for young people. And that indicates the scale of the challenge in cutting the number of jobless to socially acceptable levels.
If the headline figures show some improvement, a detailed breakdown of the data offers a more mixed message. Not all sectors of the economy have shared equally the job gains and job losses. Four of the 14 sectors surveyed by the CSO are continuing to shed labour, while ten have started hiring again. The technology sector continues to employ more people, offering more jobs than suitably qualified Irish workers can fill. This mismatch between the specialist skills the technology industry requires and what is available locally has forced many companies to rely on foreign workers to fill vacancies. The skills gap in the technology sector has been apparent for years, but successive governments have done too little to address it.
One worrying aspect of the employment data has been the sharp and sustained fall in youth employment. In the six months to last December, employment growth was confined to those over 35, while the numbers at work of those under 35, continued to decline. This may well largely reflect the heavy toll that emigration has taken on the most mobile members of society, in an economy where the burden of adjustment has been less than equally shared between the different sectors.
Indeed no sector has been hit harder in the boom-to-boost economic cycle than construction. The Government’s decision this week to approve construction of the €550 million motorway between Gort and Tuam, which will create several hundred jobs in a project lasting 3½ years, is perhaps a recognition of that reality. It is also an acceptance that a modern motorway network with regional development focus is a critical part of our national infrastructure, one on which a sustainable economic recovery also depends.