Wednesday 22 May 2019

From affordable childcare to flexible working options - give parents a workable choice

Call for support for working parents in Budget 2019

Returning to work after maternity leave can be an emotional rollercoaster
Returning to work after maternity leave can be an emotional rollercoaster

Geraldine King, CEO, National Recruitment Federation

Our economy is practically at full employment; industries are under pressure to compete, and services are stretched because we currently do not have an adequate labour supply.

Employers are adapting, with flexible working and remote working options, new processes, bringing in overseas labour supply, and contracting services and aspects of production elsewhere.

Our Government is missing a trick, however, in not enabling our citizens to work. 

Women in Ireland over the age of thirty-five have lower participation rates in the workforce than their EU counterparts. 

Why; because they chose to have a family, and, in Ireland, parents are not adequately supported in choosing to both work and to care for their children.

The cost of childcare is the single biggest inhibitor of women with children returning to the workforce. 

Lack of affordable day-care and after-school childcare means one parent, usually the woman, but sometimes the man, has to give up their career, or to limit their contribution.  Single parents face an even more bleak prospect, and fewer options! 

A sense of purpose

And the ability to work is bigger than the need to contribute to the household income, to the industry you are trained in, or even to the national economy.  It is about self-esteem, identity, a sense of purpose beyond family, and a right that should be afforded to everyone willing and able to contribute to wider society by their labours.

There is purpose and dignity in raising children, but why does Ireland limit its citizens to an either/or situation when it comes to having a career?

Why can we not invest in the future of our children and in the economic need for labour, when both patently produce a return?

The solution - childcare needs to be heavily subsidised right across the board.  Childcare costs in Ireland are among the highest in the OECD. 

This is not just an issue for low income families.  It also causes extreme difficulty for middle income earners where, in a two-income family, one wage is going exclusively on childcare.  Where is the motivation in that? 

The deciding factor in pursuing a career should not be whether or not it makes sense financially.  We educate our people to high standard, and then introduce barriers to their using their skills and experience.  Where is the sense in penalising people who want to work; making it impossible for them?

Scandinavia, particularly Sweden, has the optimum system.  Quality State-supported childcare and education is core to their welfare policies and budget spending.

Pipe dream

For Irish families, affordable childcare is a pipe dream.  Costs are growing along with the children, and, essentially, paying out monthly childcare costs amounting to almost a second mortgage is just not sustainable.

The current system of providing a free childcare place for children aged three and up is helpful, but, to support real career and earning options, Government needs to provide subsidised childcare for children from the end of the maternity leave period.

An increase in the amount of hours provided by the ECCE scheme is needed, and the scheme must be supplemented by after-school hours to support working parents. 

We develop the childcare industry, creating opportunity there, and we give people choice to work, to earn, to pay their taxes, to consume the goods and services that drive our economy, and contribute to the businesses that create wealth.

Giving new parents two extra weeks off work to spend with their baby, or providing granny grants for childminding, is not a proper solution; it is an insult to stressed and disillusioned working parents.

A serious policy decision

Make this a serious policy decision for Ireland and commit the planning, organisational and financial resources to make it work. 

There needs to be an holistic determined approach.  Affordable childcare is the first hurdle, and there are other practical steps Government can facilitate. 

Encourage the provision of flexible working options by employers, including the State, our major employer.

Help returning parents integrate back into the workforce, with specific back-to-work training in system updates, and a stepped return - to build confidence and allow candidates to be fully prepared.

Some people choose a career break to look after their kids.  But let’s facilitate a return to work seamlessly, a means that people do not lose out on skills and training while away, that promotion or development prospects aren’t wiped out, that job sharing, remote working or flexible hours can be made to work for anyone who needs them.

Like so many of Ireland’s big policy decisions of late, supporting working parents is about giving people a workable choice, and the right to determine their own lives. 

Geraldine King is CEO of the National Recruitment Federation (NRF), the representative trade body for the recruitment industry in Ireland and analysts and advisors on labour market issues in Ireland and abroad.

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