Approvals for permits are already 50pc ahead of the total for 2021 with unemployment at record lows
The Department of Enterprise is on track to issue a record number of employment permits this year as officials race to clear a backlog of applications built up during the pandemic.
More than 24,000 permits for non-EEA nationals were approved in just the first seven months of the year, already 50pc more than the total for 2021.
At the current run rate of approximately 4,000 permits being issued every month, the department is on course to exceed the 2008 peak of 29,394 by the middle of September.
The rapid throughput comes as unemployment has hit a 21-year low of just 4.2pc and labour shortages are affecting most sectors of the economy, increasing the demand for foreign workers to plug staffing gaps.
Many of the new permits being issued this year come from a backlog that grew out of control in 2021 after a combination of increased demand and Covid disruptions overwhelmed issuing capacity. At one point last year, the average waiting time for a work permit was 21 weeks.
Horticultural and meat workers were also added to the allowable occupations list for non-EEA work permits last October, leading to an additional 3,000 applications, which added to the growing backlog.
As a result, the Department of Enterprise started 2022 with more than 10,000 unprocessed applications.
But an emergency staffing plan implemented in January, which trebled the headcount of some sections of the department, appears to have put the system back on track.
Waiting times are now down to between two and eight weeks, and two-thirds of outstanding applications for last year have been cleared, leaving a backlog of just 3,700, which should be gone by December.
Applications for work permits increased by 69pc to 27,666 in 2021 over the prior year – and almost 50pc more than pre-pandemic 2019 - as hospitals and tech multinationals went on a hiring spree to cope with the spike in demand from Covid.
The department managed to issue 16,275 permits in response last year, but the processing shortfall left many businesses short of staff precisely as they were ramping up for the recovery.
Employment permits are granted only for roles that cannot be filled from the available labour pool in Ireland and the rest of the EEA.
Permits for IT and health workers dominate the programme, accounting for nearly half of all those issued to date in 2022, with 6,566 for tech and 5,679 for healthcare, although hiring freezes and layoffs in the tech sector could see this change in the coming months.
Permits for agricultural workers are not far behind with 3,778 issued up to the end of July.
Minister for Business and Employment Damien English said last month the Government would introduce legislation to simplify the system
The reforms will include seasonal permits, a simpler needs test and revised approval criteria to speed up the processing of applications.