Study of jobs in the west could help State plan for the future

Galway is a success story, with large labour catchment area and highly educated workforce

Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT): Galway city has the highest proportion of graduates in the State (61 per cent), beating Dublin and Cork. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

When developing future policy on spatial development, the National Planning Framework drew on past experience – a useful guide to what will work in the future. This week, the Western Development Commission (WDC) published a very interesting study looking at where jobs are located in the west and the northwest of Ireland, and where those who are employed actually live.

The commission defines the western region as Connacht, Clare and Donegal. It is heavily rural, with two-thirds of the population living in rural areas compared to 37 per cent in the State as a whole. Galway city is the only large-scale settlement. However, Limerick and Derry, just outside the region, are also of significance.

Galway city and suburbs had a population in 2016 of 80,000, with the next-largest settlements in the region being Ennis (25,000), and Letterkenny and Sligo at about 20,000 each.

The study looked at the labour catchment areas of the seven largest cities or towns in the region, in other words the hinterland that supplies many commuters to work in the relevant city or town. Galway city’s labour catchment area covers most of the county, some of south Mayo and north Clare.


The data illustrate why Galway has been a success story.

Fewer graduates

While the overall Border, Midland and West region has fewer graduates than average, Galway city has the highest proportion of graduates in the State (61 per cent), beating Dublin and Cork. This figure has grown rapidly from 49 per cent in 2006. Galway’s skill profile has thus increased dramatically over the troubled last economic decade.

Towns like Barna, Oranmore and Moycullen, which are part of the greater Galway conurbation, show a similarly highly educated population.

Traditionally the west of Ireland, especially Mayo and Kerry, had high participation rates in education. However, for decades this did not translate into a better-educated adult population in these areas, because so many of the best-educated young people from these counties migrated elsewhere in Ireland or abroad. However, over the last 10 years, Galway has become a magnet for skilled and experienced workers, not just from Galway itself, but from the wider region, and indeed further afield.

As well as its two third-level institutions, NUIG and GMIT, and its major hospitals, Galway also benefits from significant graduate-level jobs in the private sector, particularly the health tech industry. IDA Ireland’s successful response to the loss of the Digital computer plant in 1994 was to grow a speciality in medical devices in the Galway region.

Inward commuting

It is particularly notable that almost a quarter of Galway’s 44,000-strong workforce commutes in from outside the city. This pattern of inward commuting means that Galway, although its overall population is somewhat smaller than Limerick, nevertheless has a similar level of employment to its southern neighbour.

However, inward commuting from a widely dispersed hinterland, mainly by private car, results in significant traffic congestion in the city, with its commuter times shorter only than those in the greater Dublin area. This problem is exacerbated by the constraints of geography, with approaches to the city limited by its situation between Lough Corrib, Lough Atalia and the sea.

Greater use of public transport could ease congestion but, in the longer term, this will require denser development in Galway city itself and in surrounding towns on the public transport network.

The Derry/Letterkenny region provides an interesting contrast to Galway. While Derry is 50 per cent larger than Galway, its labour catchment is smaller, and only those in Donegal in its immediate hinterland or in the Inishowen peninsula commute to Derry to work. So, for its size, the footprint of Derry city in Donegal is relatively small.

Unskilled workers

Relative to Galway, Derry has more unskilled workers and a lower proportion of graduates, and this is mirrored in the city’s relatively weak economy. And Derry’s role in the northwest’s economy is likely to be adversely affected by Brexit.

The result is that Letterkenny is less in Derry’s shadow than its geographical position might suggest. Although Letterkenny has a high proportion of graduate workers, with the institute of technology and the hospital playing their part, the town is too small, compared to Galway, to really drive growth in the surrounding region.

Galway city’s critical mass has played an important part in its success. For the northwest, Derry has the scale that could make it a growth pole for the region, including Letterkenny. However, higher-skilled jobs and a soft Brexit would be key to delivering on its potential to drive the northwestern region.