Is the Government jobs initiative a bridge to nowhere?

 

ANALYSIS:WHAT DO an architect, a solicitor, a graphic designer, a physiotherapist, a driver’s helper and general store person have in common? All these jobs were up for grabs on the JobBridge website last night.

While Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton yesterday described the widening of the national internship scheme to accommodate a further 1,000 applicants as a good news story, it is also a depressing one, not least because its very existence reflects the dire state of the Irish economy and the poor employment prospects many people have.

Described yesterday as one of the pillars of the Government’s first jobs initiative, the JobBridge scheme has been dogged by controversy since it was rolled out last summer, with frequent complaints that companies are exploiting it to find cheap temporary labour.

Social media has been used, with sometimes devastating effect, to highlight the most questionable jobs that have made it on to the site. Even yesterday when the Minister was speaking to the press, Twitter was hopping with criticism of the initiative.

Take, for instance, the general store person role. The person who gets this position will, after nine months on the shop floor, be adept at “establishing customer requirements and ensuring they are fully satisfied by successful completion of sale”.

They will also be good at “ensuring shelves are fully stocked and merchandised” and will have learned the importance of “maintaining a tidy and safe working environment”.

The driver’s helper, meanwhile, will be on a more gentle learning curve: over the course of their nine months on the job, the intern “will gain practical experience in loading and unloading vehicles”.

A cynic might suggest that a 15- year-old could learn all of these skills in an hour. While some small firms are clearly using the scheme to plug gaps in their workforce, gaps they may not be able to afford to fill using more traditional enticements such as wages, others do not have that excuse.

Last year Tesco Ireland, one of the biggest retailers in the State, used JobBridge to recruit more than 100 shelf-stackers for 17 of its supermarkets over the busy Christmas period. While this hugely profitable company may well have been giving successful applicants an opportunity and a taste of real work, it is hard to see why it could not have paid them at least minimum wage.

Ms Burton said yesterday that “teething problems” had been ironed out and all was well with the scheme, but it is still hard to dodge the central accusation, levelled at it most vociferously by Sinn Féin yesterday, that many of the jobs will teach people little but will benefit employers who get full-time staff for free for nine months, after which they can cut them loose.

The scheme’s value does not rest solely in the learning process: there is also value in getting used to a working environment. As Burton said yesterday, “it is easier to get a job when you have a job”, although that truism does depend on at least some jobs being there for the one-time interns to find.

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