Written Answers. - Skills Shortages.

Michael D. Higgins

Question:

60 Mr. M. Higgins asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment her recent efforts to fill labour shortages in electronics, craft skills and the tourism industry. [7691/98]

The educational and skills levels of the Irish workforce represent the single most important factor in the development of the enterprise sector, and in achieving our ambitious national objectives to increase employment and living standards and to reduce unemployment. Since the Government came into office in July 1997, it has made a number of direct and tangible responses in the area of skill shortages in order to meet the needs of our rapidly developing economy. Among these are the following. An extra £5 million has been provided to commence the expansion of student intake in computing and technician courses, with a view to achieving an increased annual output of 1,000 computer graduates and 750 technicians. In November 1997, the Government announced the establishment of a £250 million education technology investment fund as part of a major drive aimed at raising the skills profile of our students and workers. Also in November, I announced the establishment, in conjunction with my colleague the Minister for Education and Science, of a new business, education and training partnership. The partnership will develop strategies, at the highest levels, to tackle the issues of skills needs, manpower forecasting and education for industry and business. The December budget increased the threshold for the payment of PRSI from £80 to £100, to make it more attractive for people to take up lower paid jobs. It also introduced a tax initiative for the long-term unemployed, which benefits both the employee and the employer. FÁS has also been allocated additional funds in the current year to expand its provision in the software and electronic areas. This it is now doing and trainee numbers will increase by about 250 this year. FÁS is responsible for apprenticeship in Ireland and has introduced a new standardsbased system over the last few years. The number of apprentices has risen rapidly to meet the demands of the economy, particularly in the construction sector. In 1997, a record 5,300 apprentices were registered, compared with 4,200 in 1996 and levels of around 3,000 in preceding years. In conjunction with the Construction Industry Federation, FÁS has undertaken an extensive promotional campaign to encourage Irish-born craftspersons currently working in the United Kingdom to consider returning to work in Ireland. This campaign has been very successful, with an estimated 5,000 returning home in 1997 and a further 3,000 projected to return in 1998.

I am confident that the measures recently agreed by the Government, together with the ongoing programmes being undertaken by FÁS and the Department of Education and Science, will ensure that skill shortages are minimised and are addressed promptly where they occur.