Friday 6 December 2019

Eoghan Harris: Cannon must save craft skills to rebuild manufacturing base that will lift us up

Ciaran Cannon, the Minister for Skills, and Paul O'Toole, boss of Solas, must make sure that when throwing out former Fas boss Rody Molloy's cloudy bathwater they do not also throw out the healthy Fas babies: the craft skills which are still the envy of countries like Australia and New Zealand.

FAS had a few fat cats at the top -- rightly exposed by Shane Ross and Nick Webb -- and some of the courses it farmed out to the private sector were flawed. But Fas craft courses gave massive value for money. And not only craft courses.

The facts speak for themselves. As the recession began to bite, Fas took on tens of thousands of unemployed workers. At a time when its own staff numbers were falling, the numbers of those it trained jumped from 30,000 to 110,000, a productivity increase of 300 per cent.

Irish craft training is highly regarded abroad. In June 2009, the Australian government asked a University of Sydney team to report on how other industrialised countries were supporting their apprenticeship system during the current downturn. The team found few had done anything useful -- with one exception. "Ireland appears to be one of the few countries with a comprehensive, substantive strategy for mitigating the impact of its very deep recession on apprentices."

The Australian report only made two recommendations -- the first may surprise you. Recommendation 1: "Build on the Irish experience as well as emerging initiatives concerning short-time work and green skills to meet short-run needs."

Australian respect for Irish craft training does not stop there. The nation even wants Irish trainees who have not completed full Fas training. In recent weeks you may have noticed posters asking apprentices to come to Australia with the catchy slogan: "No Papers? No Problem."

The Australians have good reason to respect Irish skills. In 2005, Ireland came fifth in the World Skills Competition. We were only pipped by tiger economies like Korea, Switzerland and Germany. Thanks to Thatcher's myopic policy of taking craft training away from state agencies and entrusting it to employers, the UK trailed five places behind us.

Fas's good work was washed away by the behaviour of the Fas top brass. But alarm bells should go off in our heads when the new body, Solas, talks about "a shift away from skills provision for traditional occupations like construction which have seen a huge fall in employment".

So we must stop training electricians, plumbers and carpenters just because Tom Parlon's builders blew the boom and now have no jobs for them? But there are no jobs for solicitors and teachers either. So why don't we close down the Law Library and the universities?

Snobbery is why. Solas must not stop training apprentices in craft skills -- which are always wanted -- in order to teach soft new "people skills". This is playing to the prejudices of the Irish professional class.

This prejudice is pointed up by the story of the convent headmistress who took her class on a tour of the Limerick Fas centre where apprentices worked with advanced machine tools. As the class boarded the bus the apprentices heard the nun say: "Now girls, if you don't work hard, you'll end up here."

The Irish bourgeoisie never respected crafts and trades. Back in 1905, Paul Dubois, a French sociologist, noted how the Irish middle class had no time for manufacturing. They wanted to put their progeny into church or the professions And the same is true today.

Just look at the Dail. Dominated by teachers and other professions. Fat chance of finding anybody who could fix anything or make anything or use a spanner. Like the Department of Education, Irish politicians have no natural sympathy with people who use their hands.

Go to Germany and see the difference. Every time I taught screenwriting -- a craft as well as an art -- in a German city we were met by local politicians who came from widely diversified backgrounds. But most of them shared some background in craft skills. Germany is the gold standard in craft training. Every major town has a Handworks Council, the equivalent of our Chamber of Commerce. And Germany recognises some 350 trades -- including glazing -- whereas Ireland recognises only 29 trades, not including glazing.

Unlike German politicians, Irish decision-makers do not want their sons and daughters to learn crafts, nor marry those who do. The only time they think about trades is when the toilet is blocked or their cars break down. But we have to teach craft skills if we want to build the manufacturing base which is the only source of primary wealth.

What is a craft skill? A special proficiency taught by carrying out repetitive tasks of increasing complexity, following the example of watchful tutors who are trained to increase the difficulty of the task. British studies show that solving practical problems teaches you to think systematically.

Here are two home truths. First, a country that does not make things is always going to be at the mercy of the rough winds of recession. The most successful economies have broad bases built on the firm foundation of manufacturing industry. Just look at Germany.

Second, manufacturing industry is created by people with practical skills. If you want to go green and put up a windmill in your garden, you need skilled people to put it in. Doing it they come up with a better way of making some part or even a better windmill -- and a new industry is born.

But Solas must first solve one big problem. Down the years Ibec-Ictu created a closed craft shop. Apprentices are not trained unless an employer takes them on. Also, the unions insisted that trainees had to be paid a bloated portion of a trained person's wage instead of a jobseeker's allowance.

At this point the professional classes cry out: but why train people in craft skills if they have to emigrate? To which I reply: the recession will not last forever; so let them go with a skill. Why? Because when they come back -- as many will when the recession recedes -- some will return not just to fix but to fabricate, to start manufacturing things.

Solas must no longer let Tom Parlon's builders decide how many apprentices we train. Or the unions decide what we pay them in training -- which was traditionally far too much. Instead we should continue to train a steady supply of skilled workers, who can move from fixing fridges to making better windmills, and pay them a jobseeker's allowance while doing so.

Ciaran Cannon is a politician of courage who has never been a prisoner of political correctness. He and Paul O'Toole, the hard-headed new Solas boss, must make sure we continue to turn out skilled craft workers. The first step should be a campaign to change the class culture which looks down on dirty hands.

As a wise woman friend said to me: "There is nothing wrong with the clean dirt on a mechanic's hands -- it's the B.O. from the fellows with empty briefcases I can't stand."

Sunday Independent

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