The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, welcomes the opportunity to address the joint committee on the linked matters of work permits and apprenticeships. What links them is how skills are formed in an economy and whether we make them or buy them in. There are provisions for work permits in the high and low skill sectors of the economy, but it is in the latter that controversy most often arises. There must be a balance between the desire of some employers to recruit people with additional skills and the desire of others to depress wages. According to a memorandum from an interdepartmental group, where employees on work permits are working for relatively low rates of pay, it will tend to set rates and conditions for other workers in the same occupations and sectors.
According to the Central Statistics Office, CSO, the quarter 1 vacancy rate this year was 1.1%, an increase on the 0.5% rate in 2011 but still far below rates prevailing in mainland Europe. The highest job vacancy rates in quarter 2 of 2018 were recorded in the Czech Republic, at 5.4%; Belgium, at 3.5%; the Netherlands, at 3.1%, and Germany, at 2.9%. EUROSTAT recorded Ireland as having a stable job vacancy rate. There may be skills shortages in selected areas, but we are a long way from labour shortages. In its 2017 bulletin report the skills and labour market research unit of SOLAS which is pretty much the gold standard in terms of research in this area, states that while there are shortages in a number of occupations across all sectors of the economy, many of them are small in magnitude and in particular niche areas in which a number of years' experience is required. It is important to bear in mind that while there may be, for example, a shortage of engineers, the positions will not necessarily be filled by people just out of University College Dublin, UCD, Trinity College Dublin, TCD, or the Dublin Institute of Technology, DIT, in Bolton Street as they require engineers with experience. There is a shortage of engineers pretty much worldwide.
There are still 240,000 people on the live register and 17 million unemployed in the EU27. The latter are reachable through the EURES service, but employers make insufficient use of it. The JobPath programme is aimed at Irish residents who are long-term unemployed. The Government has paid out more that €100 million in the last two years to the two JobPath contractors, Seetec and Turas Nua, which operate north and south of the line running from Dublin to Galway. Bringing in a large number of non-EEA nationals on wages at or just above the minimum wage would be counter to the objectives of the programme. We need to examine pathways towards regularisation for people who are perhaps here irregularly. A large number of people have come to this country on student visas to learn English. Some have overstayed their visas and remained in the country illegally. A programme has recently been introduced opening a path to regularisation. We need to evaluate the operation of the programme, with a view to introducing other targeted regularisation initiatives. One possible criterion that might be used is the possession of a QQI certificate in a work related discipline. Strangely, a person might be in this country illegally as far as one of the arm of the State, the Garda National Immigration Bureau, GNIB, is concerned, but he or she has been through the system and obtained a QQI certificate through another arm of the State. There may be potential to have a regularisation pathway in that regard.
On the question of work permits, we need to learn from mistakes and make policy on the basis of calm evaluation, not news bites. The committee has a good track record in this area. A little less than a year ago it published a report on the operation of atypical schemes in the fishing sector, describing the harrowing tales of exploitation about which it had heard in the course of its work. The same mistakes must not be repeated in other sectors.
On apprenticeships, the development of new apprenticeships has been underpinned by a broad degree of consensus among the various players. The most recent statistical update given to the Dáil in the week beginning 25 October is now outdated on the basis of responses given to questions last week. The SOLAS website lists 41 apprenticeships currently on offer. Of these, over one third, or 14, are of the new generation of apprenticeships. There are a further 11 apprenticeships in development and a greater number in pre-development stage. Apprenticeships were traditionally at level six, but of the newer generation of apprenticeships, seven of the 14 are at level 7, or ordinary degree level, or 8, honours degree level. An example in that regard is the industrial engineering apprenticeship currently provided in Limerick Institute of Technology. The programme seeks to address the shortage of electrical engineers at level 7 or 8 by providing a pathway for existing electricians at level 6 to upgrade to level 7. The attraction for the apprentices is career progression, while for the sponsoring companies it is the opportunity is to grow their engineer talent with people who have a proven track record in the company.
New apprenticeship sectors have developed in biopharma, property services, ICT, finance and logistics. In addition, new apprenticeships have been developed in the electrical and mechanical areas. The number of new apprentices, as a percentage of total apprenticeships, has grown from 2% in 2016 to 10% in 2018. This will lead to a greater number of women apprentices. In the process of recruitment of apprentices, in which I have been involved for over a decade, everything revolves around the CAO dates, particularly the date of offers. It is anticipated that the concept of "earn while you learn" will catch on among young people. It is hoped the expansion of apprenticeships will help to address the problem of dropout and completion rates in the third level sector.
Returning to the question of skills, people will seek to enter occupations that provide good wages and progression rates. They will tolerate low wages while learning in order to have long-term access to knowledge and skills, but they will not remain in low wage, low prospect occupations. People want careers, not jobs.
The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation recognises this and has stated in an internal document that some of the labour supply issues in certain industries would be alleviated, if not resolved, by the passing of the banded hours legislation. I am always perplexed to see certain employers describing difficulties in recruitment in certain sectors and almost in the same breath stating that work permits in these sectors should have pay rates pitched at no more than the minimum wage.
Work permits and apprenticeships are linked to the proposition of whether an employer buys in skills or develops them in-house. We have to be cautious with work permits and bringing in people from outside the EU 28 or EU 27 countries. The Department takes the view that one of its duties in the area of work permits is to protect the labour market, but what we are really talking about is the labour market of the EU 27.
The apprenticeship system has been recast and remodelled. A tranche of new apprenticeships has materialised. The numbers involved are small but the percentages are growing. Like any experiment, some aspects of the new apprenticeship may falter but that is an argument for more evaluation and support rather than for knocking the new system.