Martina Devlin: Solas must focus if it is to succeed where FAS failed
The social evil which tops the misery index must surely be unemployment -- a condition which, let us remember, is not the fault of the unemployed.
Joblessness is neither a statistical problem nor an economic problem, although it has components of the latter. It is a human problem. And one being dealt with unproductively here -- a failure with far-reaching consequences.
Reducing unemployment is the most important challenge for 2012. This is crucial from the perspective of the State's recovery, but it also matters for the self-respect of those hundreds of thousands of individuals affected by job loss.
Together they add up to 14.5pc of the labour force, but these are people and not percentages -- they are human beings whose lives have been thrown off course.
Finding yourself minus a job, with limited prospects of landing another, is humiliating, stressful and confidence-sapping. It creates a sense of hopelessness and worthlessness.
It destroys relationships, reduces standards of living and increases the likelihood of emigration. Unemployed people can find it difficult to keep their homes and may be obliged to move house, which forces their children to change schools -- the social repercussions just keep on mounting.
Retraining may help some to return to the workforce. Unfortunately, our approach to training is pitifully inadequate -- an insult to the unemployed. And bear in mind that any one of us could number among their ranks tomorrow.
Until lately, FAS was the authority entrusted by the State with training and employment, but serious weaknesses were uncovered there. Between 2002 and 2007, for example, it spent €50m on travel, hospitality and advertising -- a figure suggesting that Shakespeare's Falstaff, who feasted and cavorted at others' expense, was the patron saint of FAS. The Government has abolished FAS and given the task of training to a new agency called Solas, under the Department of Education.
So there is a plan. But is it fit for purpose? A disturbing flaw was identified in a series of Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) papers published recently, without receiving the attention they deserve.
One of the reports, pulling no punches with its title, 'Carrots Without Sticks: The Impacts of Job Search Assistance In A Regime With Minimal Monitoring And Sanctions', made a worrying discovery in relation to a stimulus designed to help unemployed people re-enter the labour market.
Under the National Employment Activation Plan (NEAP), all dole claimants were meant to be referred automatically to FAS by the Department of Social Protection (DSP) when their claim reached the 13-week point on the Live Register.
"However, when we merged the customer Live Register data with the FAS events' file, we found that a substantial proportion of qualifying claimants were not, in fact, referred," note the authors.
The ESRI team took a sample of 7,468 people on the Live Register for 20 weeks, and concluded that "approximately 20pc were not referred to FAS by the DSP system". In other words, one in five was still not interviewed by FAS almost five months after becoming unemployed.
In addition, they learned that 36pc of people invited for interview failed to appear. Some may choose not to turn up, and financial sanctions need to be implemented in such cases. But others are falling through the net -- and that's unforgivable.
These interviews are intended to pinpoint training and upskilling opportunities that could help unemployed people to find jobs. They are a valuable support mechanism.
International research indicates early intervention is crucial to get people back into the workforce. But in Ireland, here's how we do it. Nobody gets interviewed at all until they spend at least three months out of work -- a whopping big tranche of wasted time -- and then when an interview is finally supposed to happen, 20pc of people are never offered one, while a further 36pc are allowed to be no-shows.
This stinks of incompetence, slackness and inefficient systems in place for the people in our society in most need of help.
If only that was all.
Another gap looms large in the plan. Returning people to work calls for joined-up thinking -- not rocket science, but some focus.
For example, isolate the areas in which the unemployed lack skills that could land them a job, then tailor training to meet those needs -- as opposed to sending people on courses willy-nilly.
We'd never do the willy-nilly thing, would we? Oh yes we would, according to another ESRI paper, 'The Impact of Training Programme Type and Duration on the Employment Chances of the Unemployed in Ireland'.
It says: "Only 8pc of trainees participated in the highly effective job search training, as did 4pc in high-level specific skills training." Translation: too few people are doing targeted training.
It concluded that simply giving people general training and low-level specific skills training -- our current modus operandi -- had a minimal impact on their chances of leaving unemployment behind.
Take unemployed construction workers. Wouldn't it make sense to train them to fit solar panels and heat pumps or to do house insulation, all growth areas? New properties may not be built for some time, but existing ones need retrofitting and upgrading.
Finally, we seem to import people to fill certain types of jobs. In an economy with rampant unemployment, we need to get cracking on that aspect. I am aware of at least one major multinational in Dublin with vacancies for 200 staff but its senior executives doubt whether enough workers, sufficiently skilled to do those high-end software jobs, are available in the Irish marketplace.
Obviously Solas can't train up 200 software experts overnight, but it can identify areas where need is likely to arise and start the ball rolling. I'd like to feel confident this element of forward thinking was in the plan. Based on these ESRI reports, confident is something I'm not.
The overwhelming majority of unemployed people don't want the State to pay them to twiddle their thumbs on benefits -- they long to work, because unemployment unmans men and undoes women.
They deserve an opportunity to hold down a job. The least we can do is help them to find one.
- The ESRI papers cited were researched and written by Seamus McGuinness, Elish Kelly and Philip J O'Connell.