Market for low-skilled still buoyant despite recent turmoil


Low-tech, labour-intensive industries are in danger of being left behind in the current economic boom. But while enterprises dependent on low-skilled workforces are most likely to struggle, for workers it's a different picture. People no longer have to be highly-trained to find secure employment. In fact, there has never been a better time for unskilled, inexperienced job-seekers of all ages to be coming on to the market, according to recruitment agencies.

Such is the buoyancy of the current jobs market and the shortage of skilled workers that companies have never been more prepared to take on staff for on-site training. At industry level, however, almost all the major closures of recent years have been of companies which were largely dependent on high numbers of low-skilled workers.

The recent announcement of the transfer of much of Fruit of the Loom's sewing operations from Co Donegal to Morocco, resulting in the loss of more than 800 jobs, is symptomatic of a trend whereby multinational companies have moved semi-skilled or unskilled tasks to low-wage locations.

The difficulties at Fruit of the Loom are typical of those experienced in the clothing and textiles industry generally. Another high-profile closure occurred at the Atlantic Mills denim plant in Longford, where 180 jobs were lost in the run-up to Christmas.

Figures compiled by The Economic and Social Research Institute show employment in textiles declined from 18,000 in 1981 to 10,000 in 1995, and project a further fall to 8,000 by 2003. Clothing and footwear follow a similar pattern: 20,000 in 1981, 12,000 in 1995 and 9,000 by 2003.

In contrast, the figures for the engineering and machinery sector, which includes a high level of technology-related manufacturing, grew from 54,000 employees in 1981 to a forecast of 96,000 by 2003.

An IDA Ireland spokesman said there was no point in the State attempting to be a low-cost, low-skilled economy when wages were so much lower in other parts of the world. "Companies which come to Ireland do so because of the skills we have to offer and because of the tax regime," he said. "We are moving from assembly-type operations to the kind of industries in which people have a value-added input, ones which rely, if you like, on people's brain power." The Krups plant in Limerick, which is closing with the loss of 500 jobs, is another example of a traditional manufacturer losing out in the highly competitive global market.

There were other factors: the collapse of its Russian market played a major part in the downfall of the household appliances company, which had a largely semi-skilled workforce. But the task facing those workers now is how to equip themselves for the high-tech jobs being created in the Limerick area.

Even on the day the Krups closure was announced in October, Dell Computers announced it was looking for 650 workers. Five years ago, middle-aged workers without specialised skills would have little prospect of ever recovering from a plant closure, but that is no longer the case.

Mr Adrian McGennis, general manager of the Marlborough Group recruitment agency, said even blue chip companies had requirements for large numbers of low-skilled workers such as factory operatives. "I know there is a perception out there that it's only people with skills who can find work but that's not the reality," he said. Some companies had difficulty attracting sufficient numbers of such workers, he said, adding that the recent changes in the Budget, alleviating some of the tax burden on the lower paid, should help the situation. For those prepared to learn new skills, there are even greater opportunities. Mr Tom McWalters of recruitment agency, Collins McNicholas, said multinationals are setting up training programmes, sometimes in conjunction with FAS, for people whose job prospects would, in another era, have been slim.

These include women returning to the workforce or entering it for the first time after raising children. Investment in training could be more beneficial in the case of older workers who were less likely to change jobs or move on than younger colleagues. "Semi-skilled operators in the electronics industry are becoming a much sought-after commodity," Mr McWalters said. The buoyancy of the jobs market is exemplified by the success in finding alternative employment for workers at the Seagate computer plant in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, which closed a year ago with the loss of 1,500 jobs.

By October only 219 of those workers were still seeking employment through FAS, which initially interviewed 718 of the 1,500 workers concerned. The rest had already indicated AS that they had found full-time employment.

Although the figures show a soft landing cannot be guaranteed for everyone when a success story turns sour, FAS will be well pleased if similar results can be obtained in Limerick, Donegal and Longford this year.