Monday 26 February 2018

Young, gifted and fleeing...

IF YOU walked around Dublin on a weekday afternoon a few years ago, you would have seen the usual suspects out and about.

Pensioners and mostly students would have been everywhere, the students lounging around the coffee shops that sprang up throughout Ireland's cities during the boom.

By six o'clock the streets would be taken over by battalions of professionals suitably dressed in sober suits and overcoats as they marched home to suburbia, while the students, if they weren't still sitting outside the cafes, had repaired to a pub.

The professionals still dominate the streets at rush hour, but the students and pensioners have been joined by another demographic in the afternoon. Young people, in their mid to late twenties and early thirties, are now almost as prevalent as college kids around the city.

The differences between the two groups are subtle. The older group might wear jeans that have a more conservative cut, their shirts might be tucked in rather than hanging loose. The key to telling the difference between the two groups though is the facial expression. The carefree smile of the student is missing.

No glint in eyes

The eyes lack the glint of someone yet to enter the "real world". These people were (are?) professionals. Many of them have worked in finance, while most walked out of college and into a good position with a major company.

They are well qualified, highly educated, and experienced. And they can't get a job.

The current downturn has decimated the professional, white collar sector in a way that previous downturns have not.

According to the ESRI, 76pc of the 217,000 or so people who were unemployed in 1988 had no more than a Junior Certificate.

In 2009, 63pc of the 305,000 out of work had at least a Leaving Certificate. The number of third level graduates without work was more than double the number of grads unemployed at any point since at least 1988.

Faced with few prospects for work in Ireland, where do they go from here? And what will it mean for the economy overall?

"John" -- all three young professionals interviewed for this piece did not want to use their real name -- has the look in his eye of someone who has seen it all at this stage.

He is only 29, but has already held a handful of jobs since he finished college six years ago. During the good times, frequent movement between positions was common in the business world, not so now. Private school educated, John holds a degree in economics and has travelled extensively around the world.

Australasia, the Far East and the Americas have all been crossed off his "to do" list. He has held various positions in finance and sales and has never had a serious bout of unemployment until now. On paper, his is a CV most would expect companies to jump on, but that hasn't been the case.

"I've been off since April. At first I looked at it as a temporary setback. The thought of not getting work immediately wasn't even on my radar," he says.

The expectation of another job for John soon dissipated however, as more and more companies turned him down. And the competition has stiffened markedly.

"One of the big things now is that I'm up against people with a lot more experience than me. People who could have been my boss before are now competing with the likes of me for positions at slightly lower levels than before."

That competition for places means it is very much an employers market now, and the traditional rules that governed companies before don't seem to apply any longer.

Probation periods were usually fairly standard across the business world. Six months was probably the most common. Not any more.

John says he has heard of jobs with a one month probationary period. At the other end of the scale, probation has been up to 11 months in some cases, which gives the employer the ability to fire staff without having to worry about legal ramifications.

"I'm a pretty optimistic person so it's been okay but I've definitely started thinking about emigrating," says John.


"I want to make my life here though. I looked very closely at Australia but going to the other side of the world doesn't appeal to me at all. London would be a more realistic option."

The spectre of emigration was not a serious issue for highly qualified professionals during previous downturns. Now they are leaving in their thousands.

Traditionally, the 15 to 24 age group have emigrated at a rate of roughly double that of those aged 25 to 44, but that is no longer the case.

In 1987 just under 12,000 25 to 44-year-olds left Ireland compared to some 24,000 15 to 24-year-olds.

In 1998 less than 6,000 25 to 44s emigrated versus 21,000 15 to 24s. Since 2007, however, the older age group has overtaken the younger one.

This year nearly 30,000 people aged between 25 and 44 will leave Ireland, as opposed to 28,000 younger than 24.

One of those people who have left is "Oisin". A chartered accountant, 30-year-old Oisin worked for a major accountancy firm in Dublin but, as is the nature of that business, he finished that job after qualifying in early 2008.

With few opportunities here though, he left for Australia soon after. He now works for an international firm in Melbourne and hasn't been back since.

"I had planned to go travelling; and the fact that there weren't a lot of options in Ireland at the time made my decision to leave fairly straightforward.

"When I left it wasn't half as bad as it seems to be now though. There are a lot of people over here [in Australia] who would have come over to 'wait out' the downturn, but are now out here a lot longer than they thought they would be. I would like to go home permanently but that's just not an option at the moment.

"Why would I leave a good job here in Melbourne and go back to a country with unemployment up at 13pc and the IMF on the way in? The same goes for my brother who is out here as well."

Oisin paints a bleak picture about the perception of Ireland abroad. "To be honest Ireland has a bit of a reputation as a basketcase right now. When people here realise I'm Irish they sometimes look at me as if to say 'sorry for your trouble'."

That perception isn't shared worldwide though.

Andrew Hanson is the director of financial services recruitment for the Robert Walters recruitment agency in London. In his role he specialises in placing applicants with firms in The City -- London's financial centre. He is adamant that Irish applicants have not been tarnished by the problems at home.

"No I wouldn't say they have been damaged at all by that. Despite what's happened in Ireland, graduates from there, especially those with some experience, are well educated and make for good employees. Companies recognise that."

"Employers are quite happy to make a distinction between the state of Ireland and the person coming in looking for a job."

The City

The number of Irish applicants to The City has increased recently but perversely, the ongoing problems at home have perhaps made it easier for firms to hire an Irish person, says Mr Hanson.

Employers know the person won't be leaving after a few months to return to a recovering Irish economy and their motivation for wanting the job is clear.

"We have placed people with firms here and in Ireland for several years. While most of the traffic is from Ireland to England, I don't think being Irish is in any way a deterrent to getting a job in The City or elsewhere".


Twenty-six-year-old "Brian" is evidence of that trend. A commerce graduate, he lost his banking job in Dublin last summer.

After four months working in an off licence, and no prospects, he took a chance and went to London for three weeks. Within ten days he had been hired as an analyst with a major investment bank.

A brain drain on this scale is not something that can be easily replaced by a country the size of Ireland, and there is a danger emigration becomes a vicious circle -- just as in the 1980s.

Last Monday Ernst & Young forecast the Irish economy would grow by an average of 0.8pc per annum over the next four years -- far below the government's 2.75pc estimate. One of the factors the firm cited was a significant drop in domestic demand.

"Growth will be dampened by a range of related factors that include a large out-migration flow of people and their skills and spending," said the report.

The danger is clear. As the skilled leave the country the workforce no longer becomes desirable to major employers, without the major employers, spending drops, the economy continues to crumble, and more people leave the country.

That scenario may not play out if financial employment here picks up though, and Paul McClatchie, who manages Careers Register, a division of Cpl Recruitment, says it is.

"Supply outweighs demand for sure, but we feel the market bottomed out in the summer of 2009. Since then there has been a steady uptick in employers looking to take on staff," he says.

Despite that, the fact remains that more than 3,000 jobs were lost in the banking sector between 2007 and 2009. The Department of Enterprise estimate 2,733 jobs were lost in the sector over the first nine months of this year while the Irish Bank Officials' Association has warned that thousands more jobs may be at risk.

If the IBOA's prediction comes to pass then there will be a lot more highly qualified young professionals walking around town during the afternoon instead of heading home from the office in the evening. Those pavements may be about to get even more crowded.

Irish Independent

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