Jim Carroll

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Reimagining the jobs market

The government thinks entrepreneurship and start-your-own-business schemes are the way to go, but that’s not really going to work for the majority of jobseekers

What's next for the Irish jobs' market? Many will say "Australia" or "Canada"

Mon, Oct 21, 2013, 09:31


There were a couple of interesting lines from Minister for Finance Michael Noonan last week about the jobs market. During the course of his budget speech, the minister bemoaned the fact that “the aspiration to set up a new business is lower than the EU and OECD averages” and that “too many people in Ireland see themselves as employees for life” which is why “we must encourage people to start their own businesses” with “entrepreneurship, innovation and investment”. He then talked about a couple of measures he was introducing to try to change this, including a new Start Your Own Business scheme.

A couple of nights later, according to Noel Whelan’s column, the minister also talked about the jobs market to a gathering of tax pros at the Global Tax Policy Conference dinner-dance in Dublin. He talked about the plans he’d introduced in the budget and particularly about how to help one sector of the jobseeker market. Per Whelan, Noonan noted that “there are…about 80,000 former construction workers on the live register and, as he put it “there are not many of them who are going to become electronics engineers”.”

In fairness, there are also very few of them who are going to go on to start their own long-term, sustainable business. When Noonan and others talk about this country’s lack of an entrepreneurship culture, they’re missing the fact that this is the case for a reason.

What the vast majority of adults in this country want to do is simply have a job and leave the business of business to others. For a start, this has always been the culture which the Irish education system has ingrained in students. For another, there’s a different set of genes involved in starting a business, exploiting new ideas and working to put other people to work in the hope of making profit for yourself.

Most people don’t want to do this. They want to get a job, work a certain number of hours, get paid a certain wage and forget all about their job when they clock out or leave the office. They want to watch the telly or pursue a hobby at night rather than worry about where sales are going to come from to pay wages. If they do start businesses, it’s by accident. Indeed, many of the accidental businessmen I know are very good at this task, though some would still happily take a job for someone else over running their own ship.

We’ve seen several examples of how pushing people into starting their own businesses may not necessarily be the right policy to pursue. The construction industry of old is a case in point. It produced many thriving, hungry, eager loadsamoney businessmen keen to cash in on a national mania for houses and apartments. As the long litany of failed businesses, unpaid taxes and bankrupt developers show, that didn’t exactly go very well. There was very little sustainable businesses which came out of that fandango and it was all short-term boom and bust. No wonder many Irish adults are so reluctant to start their own businesses.

Another example comes from the Minister for Finance’s own constituency. When the Dell factory closed in Limerick in 2009 with the losss of 1,900 jobs for the city and hinterland, there were some hopes that laid-off workers would start lots of small businesses in the area and government agencies headed to Shannonside to help.

But it’s hard to foist new traditions on a workforce who are used to one way of working and thinking about jobs. The main employment stories out of Limerick still involve the possibility of new companies coming in with a couple of hundred jobs to offer, something even the minister himself knows is the only thing which is going to swing with locals. Replacing 1,900 well-paid with a couple of hundred small businesses is not the same thing because the skills base and market for such widespread entrepreneurship is just not there.

However, even though the reticence and reluctance to go it alone is there for a reason, the fact is that the jobs market is changing. The old model of large multinationals providing a couple of thousand people with a well-paid job doesn’t wash any more when so many of those companies, especially the manufacturing ones, can cut their costs by relocating in a cheaper market. The public sector used to be a source for jobs-for-life but that isn’t providing the same number of jobs as before. Add in the fact that so many entry-level jobs are now reserved for no-cost internships or low-cost JobBridge schemes and, as Laura Slattery noted in her perceptive column last week, a job of any kind now seems positioned as something to aspire to.

If the government are serious about changing the employment culture, the heavy lifting has to start long before people lose their job and sign on. At that stage of a person’s career, they’ve already commited to a certain path and, even though there are retraining and upskilling opportunities, it gets harder and harder to teach an older dog new tricks. Many may argue that pushing a culture of going it alone is a task for the education system. That’s another one so for the never-ending list of new items for that overburdened sector to tackle, now that we expect education to cure all ills. Of course, let’s not forget that many in the education system have no firsthand experience of starting their own business so that mightn’t go all too well.

But the biggest obstacle of all is that there’s no getting away from the fact that most people just want a job and want no truck with the endless chores that come with owning your own business or even just being self-employed. They’re happy to work for (and gripe about) somone else and get paid for doing so. There may be massive scope in Ireland for micro-businesses – though parts of the existing start-your-own-business infrastructure are not in the least bit user-friendly for such a thing – but the huge number of people, especially younger people, leaving the country in search of employment is proof that there’s no real interest in this way of thinking. People just want jobs.

The problem for the government is that their new ways of thinking about the jobs market are not going to change this state of affairs. They can talk about new cultures and getting away from the employees-for-life mindset all they want, but the truth is that it’s jobs rather than austerity cuts which are needed to get our morose economy to a better place. We’ve successfully used dastardly tax schemes and accountancy ruses in the past to attract high-net jobs’ companies, but every other job-hungry nation has now copped that trick or, at least, cried foul.

The global jobs market is moving one way and one way only and, as the previous government were fond of saying when it came to compiling the blame report for our banking woes, we’re now part of that global market, whether we like it or not. Reimagining the jobs market is going to need more than putting all the eggs in the entrepreneurship basket. Everyone can’t be – or doesn’t want to be – a businessman.