Irish authorities need to process 10,000 work visas over the next nine months if businesses in the tourism sector are not to face closure because of staff shortages, according to a recruitment agency that specialises in sourcing staff for the hospitality industry.
Excel Recruitment, which says it works with over 1,000 companies in the hospitality sector, has called on the Government to change the visa process for workers coming to Ireland from overseas to ensure a faster, less expensive and more flexible process.
It says tourism-related businesses across the State face closure unless the Government moves quickly to bridge the gap between vacancies and the staff available to fill them.
The agency says Ireland’s reputation as a quality tourist destination is under threat because of staff shortages, and warns burnout levels will increase sharply in what is already a demanding sector in which to work.
Data from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, which manages the working visa programmes, shows that just over 1,000 visas were granted to work in the accommodation, food, arts entertainment and recreation sectors last year, categories that broadly cover the hospitality industry.
In written answers to recent parliamentary questions on work permits, junior minister Damien English said 27,666 applications were received last year.
Department figures show just 16,275 permits were issued across all categories in 2021 – with IT, health services and financial services accounting for 70 per cent of them. Including applications that were turned down or withdrawn, the department got through fewer than 18,000 applications.
At the end of the year, despite a dramatic increase in staffing, Mr English said there was a backlog of about 10,500 applications.
The department says that, as of the end of last week, it is taking about 21 weeks to process a standard working visa application, though that figure drops to 15 weeks for applications from “trusted partner” employers.
Excel Recruitment director Shane McLave said Ireland’s hospitality sector was facing “almost insurmountable challenges” as pubs, restaurants, hotels and other businesses open ahead of a new tourism season after the pandemic shutdowns.
“The businesses that have managed to stay afloat are now experiencing serious staffing shortages,” he said. “The numbers required in terms of the workforce are simply not here at the moment so, like many growing and successful economies, we must look overseas to fill the gap.
"But this is an immediate problem and, as it stands, the solution – ie the work visa process – is cumbersome and slow. It needs to change."
Mr McLave said the current system required a job offer ahead of arrival in Ireland and provided a visa limiting the worker only to that specific employer. He argued visas should allow applicants to work for more than one employer without having to reapply to regularise their visa status.
The visa processing system also needed to be streamlined for faster decisions and made more affordable, he said.
“We recently secured visas from Korean workers to come and work in the Irish hospitality sector, but it took almost six months and came at major cost to the employer,” Mr McLave said.
He is also calling for a loosening of the rules that limit foreign students from working more than 20 hours a week for the majority of their year in Ireland, saying the students are eager to work and could go a long way to solving staff shortages. As it stands, students can work up to 40 hours a week for five months of their stay.