The Director of the government's South East Action Plan for Jobs has lashed out at a report published by Waterford Institute of Technology which bemoaned a lack of 'high quality jobs' in the South East region and stated that workers in Co Wexford earned just 39% of the national average wage. Enniscorthy native Alan Quirke described the report and the resulting coverage as 'damaging to the region' and stated that it seemed to be 'clickbait'.
While on his recent visit to Wexford, An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar described it as 'a county that is going well' pointing to decreasing unemployment, the report from Waterford IT made for grim reading.
Focusing on Wexford, Waterford, Kilkenny and Carlow, The South East Economic Monitor found that when returns for taxes on work are calculated, including PAYE, universal social charge and self-employed taxes, the figure for the entire region is just 52% of the national average.
Director of the region's Action Plan for Jobs Mr Quirke strongly disputes these figures, stating that they neither accurately nor fairly depict the situation in the South East.
'An article has been published on this that's fundamentally incorrect,' a frustrated Mr Quirke said.
'If you look at the income figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) the figure for the South East Region is actually 90% of the national average. Going on tax take alone is not really reflective of people's incomes. There are a number of people who travel outside of the region as well and then the cost of living in the South East is lower than the likes of Dublin, so on average people have 40% more disposable income.'
In relation to the report's assertion that there's a lack of high quality jobs, again Mr Quirke completely refutes this.
'I don't think that's fair at all,' he said.
'There has been a significant number of jobs announced in the financial services sector in recent times and then we also have firms like Scurri, Innovate in Gorey, Taoglas, Kent Stainless. All are expanding and providing high quality jobs. I think there's a thing here that negative stories sell better and there's an element of clickbait to this if you ask me.'
While An Taoiseach proclaimed to his audience in Wexford that unemployment is down by half in Wexford since his party came to office, the research undertaken by Waterford IT academics indicates that, while it may be decreasing, it is still more than twice the national average and while the economy of the South East is growing, it's at a slower pace than the rest of the country.
It also suggested that the Action Plan for Jobs was some way off the target of bringing unemployment figures in the South East to within 1% of the national average.
'Well the Action Plan for jobs has two targets,' Mr Quirke replied.
'One was to oversee a 10-15% increase in employment compared with Q1 of 2015. With the creation of between 18,000 and 25,000 jobs we're on track with this and the figure is currently at 11%.'
'The second target was to be within 1% of the national average for employment. This one is more challenging but we are working towards it.'
'I think what's not being highlighted by this report is that unemployment has decreased by 27% to 6.7%,' he continued. 'We have to acknowledge that the region is making progress. We want to showcase the region and show that there are good jobs and good business opportunities here and misleading headlines like this are so damaging. We have projects like the Tech Park in Enniscorthy and Trinity Wharf in Wexford and I think there's a really good chance of finding companies to fill them. But if incorrect figures like these are what pops up when you Google the region, it's really damaging.'
One part of the report that can't be argued against, however, is a lack of IDA interest in Wexford. Despite assurances that the new M11 Gorey to Enniscorthy bypass will put Wexford firmly on the map of tech firms looking to escape the spiralling costs of the capital, it will seemingly have to happen with little support from the IDA. Looking at the record of the IDA and Enterprise Ireland, this report found that just over 5% of all IDA supported jobs were in the region, while population numbers suggest that the figure should be nearly twice this.
The South East received just 6% of IDA visits across the state in 2018, which according to the report 'suggests little appetite to address the deficit in IDA-supported jobs in the region'.
In fact, figures published in this newspaper earlier this year showed that for 2018, Co Wexford had the third fewest IDA visits in the country with just three. However, this was a 33.3% rise on 2017, when the county received one fewer with two. Neighbouring Carlow, meanwhile, saw more than twice as many visits in 2018 with seven.
While government officials may not agree with the findings of the report, Fianna Fáil Deputy James Browne was taking them seriously as he raised the neglect of the South East in the Dáil last week.
'The South East consistently has the highest rate of unemployment in the country,' he said.
'There doesn't seem to be any focus on addressing this. It's not just an issue of employment but the quality of employment down there. Numerous towns in the South East are consistently at the lowest levels in terms of average incomes.'
'Wexford in particular is on the doorstep of Dublin, but is not being serviced. It has one of the lowest levels of IDA jobs in the country.'
'The IDA has virtually no land in Co Wexford,' he continued.
'Enniscorthy town has the second lowest average income in the country. The county has some of the highest levels of socio-economic black-spots in the country. There's a real lack of focus on this. There's a lot of generalities, but a lack of focus on the South East.'
Concluding his speech in Wexford in recent weeks, the Taoiseach said that there's 'a lot of good things happening; a lot more things that we can do and offer.'
That would certainly seem to be the case if the findings of this most recent report are to be believed.