Monday 18 November 2019

Leo Varadkar: 'Our economic future depends on avoiding mistakes of the past'


Futureproof: Business Minister Heather Humphreys with Paddy Byrnes of Croom Precision Medical at the ‘Future Jobs Ireland’ summit at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Maxwells
Futureproof: Business Minister Heather Humphreys with Paddy Byrnes of Croom Precision Medical at the ‘Future Jobs Ireland’ summit at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Maxwells

Leo Varadkar

Today we have record levels of employment, rising incomes, falling poverty and deprivation, and a budget in surplus despite a difficult and unpredictable global economic environment.

As a Government we want to improve the sustainability and resilience of the economy so we can secure and improve the living standards of Irish people into the future.

Future Jobs Ireland future-proofs our economy, creates new jobs, new wealth, and new businesses. It prepares us for the big challenges - whether that's trade wars, the rise of automation and artificial intelligence, or the move to a low carbon economy.

We now have a record 2.3 million people in work, a highly competitive economy, and a well-educated and highly skilled workforce.

But economic progress is not measured simply in economic statistics. It is seen in the difference it makes to families, to the elderly, to hard-working parents, and to people struggling to make ends meet.

The world is changing fast. Technology continues to herald new ways of doing business and new economic opportunities. It is not only the types of jobs that will be changing, but the way we work.

Future Jobs Ireland also ensures that as our economy changes, and traditional industries and practices are disrupted, workers and enterprises are able to transition successfully.

If we adapt now our enterprises can stay competitive and our society resilient. If we don't we will quickly fall behind.

So Future Jobs Ireland - led by Minister Heather Humphreys - represents a proactive approach to avoiding the mistakes of the past, when we were over-reliant on a few sectors and complacent about future economic risks.

My message is simple - there can be no tolerance for any complacency at any level within Government, when it comes to the Irish economy.

In the last few weeks we have seen that even in a growing economy like ours, job losses can occur as international developments impact on businesses. We live in a world where the pace of change can be frightening, if we are not prepared for it. So we need to stay ahead of the curve.

While it is understandable that it is only at times of economic crisis that the broader public engages on this issue, government and business must continuously focus on it.

We don't need to look too far into the past to remember a time when good economic performance encouraged not only complacency but hubris.

Our country still bears the scars of the mistakes of 10 and 15 years ago.

They can be seen in a population that still fears that any external shock could bring us back to the worst of those days. The impact that uncertainty about Brexit has had on consumer confidence is proof positive of that.

They can be seen in a construction sector only fitfully returning to strength. The consequences of that can be seen in the challenges we face with regard to the housing shortage.

The scars can be seen in the way we missed out on a decade of investment, when the country did not have the money to invest in the infrastructure it so desperately needs - broadband, roads, public transport, hospitals and water. This is something we are only rectifying now with Project Ireland 2040 being delivered all across our country.

The scars can be seen in the legacy of Irish men and women who were forced to leave Ireland to find jobs and opportunities abroad. People we know who settled down, started families and made careers across the globe rather than across our island.

The damage from that time has been healed but the scars remain.

It is for those obvious and painful reasons that Government is focused on ensuring the economic progress made in recent years is maintained and protected. It will not be frittered away again.

In recent times, it has become fashionable to doubt our foreign direct investment [FDI] model. There are some who have taken to suggesting that inward investment is not right for Ireland, and that we should do without it.

There are others who have taken to offering a false choice. That we must choose between a supportive environment for FDI or support for indigenous enterprises and our SMEs. It is not a zero sum game.

Due to a consistent and welcoming pro-enterprise policy environment, our place in the EU and the talent of the Irish workforce, Ireland enjoys a reputation as one of the most attractive places for FDI. We are focused on protecting that reputation and building on it.

When I launched Future Jobs Ireland back in March I set out that by 2025 I want us to have a similar reputation as the home of dynamic, high-achieving, Irish-owned SMEs with a talented and adapted workforce. That is the next phase of our economic development.

These goals are not in conflict. They can, must and will complement each other. By focusing on the need to develop indigenous enterprises, I am not proposing to take our eye off FDI.

If we want our SME sector to enjoy high levels of productivity we need to figure out how those companies can learn from high performing multi-nationals. We need to make the spill-over effect a reality.

As a country we must always look forward, but we must also keep an eye on the rear view mirror. Only by understanding our past can we avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Irish Independent

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