I thank the Chair and the committee for the invitation to attend. The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, together with the enterprise agencies, many of which will be familiar to members, such as Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland, and the four local enterprise offices in Laois, Longford, Offaly and Westmeath which are under the remit of the Department is deeply engaged in the enterprise development agenda in the midlands.
The importance of this enterprise development work has been brought into sharp focus in the context of the particular vulnerability - and the opportunities - presented by the transition from brown to green in the region, which is the subject of today's discussions. The midlands was hit relatively hard by the recession, which affected all regions, but like the rest of the country it has made a strong recovery. The unemployment rate in the midlands currently stands at 6.6%, compared to the State average of 5.4% so it just over 1% above the national average. That was as of quarter 2 of 2019. This is a vast improvement on the position at the beginning of 2015, when unemployment stood at 14.9%. That was almost 4.5% above the national average at that time. Since quarter 1 of 2015, just under 19,500 jobs were created in the midlands region. That exceeds the target we had set of a 15% increase, as it was about a 17% increase.
It is worth reminding ourselves the midlands has a strong and evolving enterprise base. It has strengths in the food and non-food manufacturing base, which continues to transition from more traditional activities to those driven by technology and digitalisation across sectors, such as medical devices, advanced engineering and an emerging internationally traded services sector. The region has significant tourism assets that can be developed in a more integrated way in the context of the brand experience of Ireland’s Ancient East and Ireland's Hidden Heartlands. The region benefits from a strong institute of technology in Athlone and has unparalleled national interconnectivity, being just over one hour from Galway and Dublin, in addition to having digital connectivity.
On our development agencies, IDA Ireland supports 42 client companies in the midlands, which bring foreign direct investment, FDI, into the region. They employed 5,720 people in 2018. The region was the highest performing region from a job creation perspective across the IDA Ireland regional portfolio in 2018, which is a good base from which to come into the current challenges. FDI employment grew by 13%, with 701 net new jobs in 2018. Recent IDA Ireland announcements for the midlands include: Greenfield Global with 75 jobs in Portlaoise; Leetha Industries and Red Seal Cups with 100 jobs in Longford; Avery Dennison with 200 jobs in Longford; Neueda Technologies with 200 jobs in Westmeath and; SkOUT Secure Intelligence with 30 jobs in Portlaoise. Similarly with Enterprise Ireland and indigenous enterprise, there are over 12,300 people employed in 247 Enterprise Ireland-supported companies in the midlands, which was up by 4% in 2018. Recent announcements there include from Revive Active with 11 jobs in Westmeath and Glanbia with 78 jobs in Portlaoise. That is a €130 million investment into Portlaoise and about 250 jobs will come on stream as part of the construction of that new facility. As for local enterprise offices, LEOs, LEO-supported micro-enterprises added 271 net new jobs across the midlands during 2018.
Despite this positive performance, the midlands now faces a new challenge, which will require renewed efforts to grow alternative sources of employment. The enterprise agencies, namely, IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland, the LEOs and other development bodies are fully engaged in this agenda, and are focused on leveraging the key strengths and the potential areas of opportunity for enterprise growth and job creation in the midlands. The Department also has close engagement with the Department of the Taoiseach on just transition and the midlands strategy. Strong cross-governmental co-ordination at the regional level, in partnership with the enterprise sector, is critical at this juncture to focus on the proactive medium to long-term measures, as well as the short-term responses that are necessary to help with the structural adjustment in the midlands region. In this context, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation is leading on the development of the regional enterprise plans, which are successors to the regional action plans for jobs that were initiated in 2014 and 2015. The midlands regional enterprise plan was launched earlier this year by the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, and the collaborative mechanisms are in place to drive its implementation. The midlands plan, which covers counties Laois, Longford, Offaly and Westmeath, is one of nine bottom-up enterprise-focused regional plans that complement national level policies and programmes, including our overall enterprise strategy, Enterprise 2025 and Future Jobs Ireland, through focused collaborative regional action. The midlands plan sets out seven strategic objectives that were agreed by stakeholders as priority areas to focus on enterprise growth. These cover in particular the transition to a low-carbon economy, big data opportunities, advanced manufacturing, place-making and marketing, tourism, food and skills development. We will hear a little bit more from the transition team on pillar 1 of that plan.
The regional enterprise plan for the midlands is strongly aligned with and supportive of the work of the regional transition team. Specifically under strategic objective 1 in the plan, it aims to: "Ensure that the Midlands is well positioned to address the challenges posed by the transition to a low carbon economy and renewable energy". The midlands plan had already adopted climate action and just transition as a focus area ahead of the climate action plan and we were drawing from this committee's own report in that context. The climate action plan has since requested that all the regional steering committees adopt just transition as a standing agenda item. The Department worked closely with the agencies, IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and the LEOs, in the preparation of the regional enterprise plan. Reflecting the critical need for a collaborative approach, the midlands plan is overseen by a regional steering committee made up of representatives from the public and private sectors. This includes the enterprise agencies, the local authorities, Athlone Institute of Technology, AIT, the education and training boards - which are here today, Fáilte Ireland; the regional skills forum for the midlands and the enterprise champions. It is chaired by Dr. Anne Cusack, managing director of Critical Healthcare, a leading indigenous business in the region.
All of the regional enterprise plans are working to the 2020 target set under the previous regional action plan for jobs, to deliver a 10 to 15% uplift in employment. That employment focus is at the centre of and will continue to be at the centre of the regional enterprise plans. The midlands steering committee has a number of working groups in place to drive the individual actions in the plan. It will be reporting on its progress to the Minister at the end of this year and the end of next year. The Minister regularly meets the chairs of the regional steering committees, and did so most recently in September, to share experiences and to focus on the evolving situation in the midlands. The delivery of actions under the regional enterprise plans is supported by a specific fund, namely, the regional enterprise development fund, which is administered for the Department by Enterprise Ireland. This fund supports significant collaborative and innovative regional initiatives to help drive enterprise growth and job creation. We have had two calls to date for total funding of €60 million, with which 42 projects have been funded. A third call for €45 million is currently being assessed. To date, the midlands region has secured €3.4 million under the first two calls and some of the initiatives that have been funded include: the Irish Manufacturing Research centre, which is based in Mullingar; Offaly Innovation and Design Centre and I-LOFAR in Birr, which is a significant Science Foundation Ireland and AIT collaborative initiative; the Mountmellick Development Association, which is an enterprise hub in Mountmellick that was opened earlier this year and; a joint Leitrim, Cavan and Longford enterprise hub project. Each region in the midlands under the current call, call 3, stands to benefit from at least €2 million. As I said, those projects should be announced by the end of the year and we understand there are some strong and positive projects from the midlands coming through there. The midlands has also benefited from significant funding, of €13.7 million so far, under the Project Ireland 2040 urban and rural regeneration and development funds, which is important from a place-making perspective, is part of the regional enterprise plans and is part of developing the region as an attractive place for businesses to locate, grow and develop and for people to live and work.
The transition to a low-carbon economy means a new economic model is necessary, focused on low-carbon growth, resource efficiency and sustainable development. That presents significant transformational challenges for enterprise, and is the focus of a dedicated chapter in the Government’s climate action plan, whose purpose is to support enterprises and individuals to make the changes in behaviour necessary to achieve our greenhouse gas emissions targets. The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation has a number of specific actions to undertake as part of the Government's climate action plan, including focusing on issues such as decarbonising processes in the cement and food and drinks sectors, which is a major employer in the midlands region, and improving the support available to firms looking to introduce lower carbon technologies. That is an ongoing focus of the agencies. The Department also has a dedicated team that is managing the achievement of the targets assigned to us, while ensuring the interests of enterprise are considered throughout the policymaking and implementation processes across Government. The transition to a low-carbon economy is a central pillar in the Future Jobs Ireland 2019 agenda and similarly will be a key focus in the work we are doing for Future Jobs Ireland 2020. We work closely with the Department of the Taoiseach on that strategy and we had a major session last week on the 2020 plan with over 200 stakeholders. Again, climate action, decarbonising and responding to the brown to green transition were key focuses of those discussions. A key issue in enterprise development and job creation is ensuring we have people with the right skills for what the market is looking for and that we have appropriate supports in place for upskilling and for reskilling, particularly for existing and emerging jobs.
This will not only play a critical role in initiating the transition but also in enabling a just transition. Without a suitably trained workforce, including through upskilling and retraining, the transition will be challenging.
The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation is committed to working with its partners across Government and stakeholders, nationally and regionally, to deliver on the potential for enterprise development in the midlands and to deliver a just transition in the face of the current challenge, in particular through opening up opportunities for the affected workers.