Women hold the answer to tightening job squeeze

John FitzGerald: CSO figures also show rise in participation of workers over the age of 65

Latest CSO figures show  the participation rate for women  has  risen by one percentage point. Photograph: Getty

Latest CSO figures show the participation rate for women has risen by one percentage point. Photograph: Getty

 

While the emigrants of the 17th century, who left Ireland never to return, were referred to as wild geese, today’s emigrants may be closer to homing pigeons.

The Central Statistics Office this week published the latest data on migration showing the scale of the return to Ireland of those who left in previous years. This pattern repeats the experience of the 1990s when many of the emigrants of the 1980s returned.

However, in the 1990s housing was still affordable, greatly facilitating a return. As we know from many individual stories, the rapidity of the recovery this time round, especially the rise in housing costs, makes a return to Ireland much more difficult today. It is a bit like a crowded rush-hour Luas – no space to get on. The question is whether people will wait until rush hour is over and housing supply has adjusted or will it then be too late to return.

Over the past three years, there has been net immigration from Australia and the United States. I don’t hear that many Aussie accents around – the bulk of the 7,600 immigrants last year from Australia were Irish returning home.

One of the triggers for return can be the birth of children or when parents have to choose schools. Over the last year, for the first time in a decade, net immigration included more than 4,000 children, suggesting a significant return of families.

The CSO data also suggests a Brexit effect: while there was net emigration to the UK in the immediate post-crisis period, this trend has reversed since the UK referendum. Over the last year almost 9,000 people moved from the UK to Ireland. Some of them were probably returning emigrants, but quite a number of them were Brexit “refugees”, including both UK citizens and citizens of other EU countries moving here from the UK.

Latvian plumbers

The CSO data tells an important story about the labour market. While Polish carpenters and Latvian plumbers provided much of the workforce in our last building boom, eastern EU economies are booming today, so we can’t expect many construction workers from there to help tackle our housing shortage. Over two-thirds of the increase in employment in construction over the last year were Irish nationals, reflecting the fact that the new member states are drying up as a source of skilled labour for us.

The southern EU economies – Spain and Italy – which currently have high unemployment, are a new source of skills. So immigration to Ireland from the “old” EU-15 is now on a similar scale to that from newer member states in the east. In future years, it may be easier to find a Spanish or an Italian plumber than one from Poland.

The CSO figures also show that total employment has at last exceeded its previous peak in 2007. Since 2012, employment has grown on average by more than 3 per cent a year: there is no apparent change in pace this year, in spite of the clouds on the horizon of Brexit and trade wars.

Long-term unemployment fell from 3.2 per cent of the labour force last year to 2 per cent today. As we approach full employment, the pool of unemployed workers to grow our workforce is also drying up.

With traditional sources of both migrant and domestic labour disappearing, employers are looking elsewhere to fill their vacancies. One option, persuading employees to delay retirement, is reflected in a rise in the participation rate for those aged over 65 by more than 1.5 percentage points over the last year.

The participation rate for all working age women has also risen by one percentage point, and for women aged between 25 and 44, the rise was two percentage points over the last year.

There is traditionally a much higher participation rate for women graduates, reflecting the fact that they can earn more to pay childcare costs. However, the latest figures show that the participation rate for women with a leaving certificate has begun to catch up.

The large number of women who are not in the labour force represents a huge reserve of possible employees. However, the high cost of childcare and inflexible working conditions has made labour force participation unattractive for many women.

With a tightening labour market, employers, if they want to increase employment, are going to have to work harder to attract many women back into the labour force. In the longer term the construction industry, with fewer outside options, may also need to consider training many more women if they are to find skilled workers to expand output.

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