Blame game begins in shell-shocked Waterford

 

ANALYSIS:Unemployment in the southeast is 17.2%, adding to fears of a regional jobs crisis

NO TOWN or region would ever choose to be described as an employment “black spot”, the term that has come into currency for Waterford over recent days. News that 575 jobs would be lost, within a month, at a TalkTalk contact centre in the town, has, however, pushed the area over the edge.

And, as a sense of doom has taken hold, so has the question of who should be blamed for the plague of job losses that has struck over the past few years.

The southeast has the dubious honour of topping the State’s table with its unemployment rate, which hit 18 per cent late last year before registering a still-frightening 17.2 per cent in the most recent data compiled by the Central Statistics Office. This compares to a State-wide average of 14.1 per cent, adding credence to the region’s “black spot” fears.

Anne-Marie Caulfield, supermarket owner and head of Waterford Chamber of Commerce, reckons about 3,000 jobs have been lost in the southeast over the past four years or so, when TalkTalk is included. She adds that each position lost in a multinational tends to lead to at least half a job being cut in supporting businesses.

Other large employers that have either shut their doors or consolidated include traditional manufacturers such as Waterford Crystal, Waterford Stanley, pharma group Teva and, to a lesser extent, GlaxoSmithKline.

Contact lens maker Bausch Lomb said two years ago it was laying off 195 people in the area, but has since decided to reinvest, offering some reason for optimism in an otherwise grim environment. Genzyme is another big employer that has grown its investment, but it has recently been acquired by Sanofi, thus clouding the picture a little.

Questions also hang over the business of contact centres such as that operated by TalkTalk. Research published yesterday by the Contact Centre Management Association of Ireland suggests buoyancy, but it is also clear that costs are lower in other parts of the world, albeit with possible knock-on consequences for customer service. Employees in such roles here tend to earn slightly more than €20,000 per year, while in India, a graduate can be employed for $5,000.

Caulfield wants action to be taken for Waterford “before it’s too late” and is urging movement from two quarters: the campaign to establish a university in the city, and the IDA’s efforts to attract inward investment.

Waterford already has an institute of technology (WIT) which Caulfield says “operates to a very high standard”, but she adds that “logically, if you want to foster entrepreneurs, you need to have a third- and fourth-level standard”. She also highlights the “spin-out” opportunities that universities tend to create.

The university debate has a lengthy history, with Waterford politicians originally asking for one to be established in the 1840s. More recently, WIT applied for university status in 2006 and the matter was assessed by a British consultant. As it stands, the Government is looking at the notion of amalgamating a group of institutes of technology into a “technical university”, and the matter is being examined by the Higher Education Authority.

Caulfield is also concerned about levels of educational attainment for Waterford residents, with some of this borne out in Higher Education Authority research. Only 39 per cent of Waterford natives who graduated in 2008 were employed in their home county one year later, compared to 57 per cent in Limerick and 67 per cent in Cork.

In the 2009/2010 academic year, meanwhile, some 1,678 students at Irish universities identified Waterford as their home, compared to almost 3,000 for Clare, a county with a similar population.

As for the IDA, the Waterford view of the authority was reflected yesterday in claims that it doesn’t even operate an office in the city.

In reality, the IDA does operate in Waterford, via an office of six people. The authority’s chief executive, Barry O’Leary, bristled yesterday when accused of neglecting the area in attracting multinational jobs, saying IDA-supported companies employed more than 5,000 people there. He pointed out the race for foreign direct investment was global rather than local, with Waterford competing against global locations such as, say, Singapore, rather than Cork or Dublin for new projects. He does not believe the absence of a university is a “root cause” of the city’s jobs problem.

Mary Buckley, the IDA’s head of regional development, said, meanwhile, that her team was “going to be working very hard” on Waterford in the near term, particularly with a view to finding a direct replacement for TalkTalk, which will leave a both a trained workforce and a vacant premises behind it.

“We will market it and then market it more intensively,” Buckley said.