Chairman, committee members and colleagues, we are mindful that we speak to everyone today in the context of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which, as we know, is having a profound global impact on societies, economies, workers and the ways in which businesses operate. Certain sectors of our economy, particularly those providing customer-facing services, remain under immense strain and will not offer their pre-Covid-19 employment levels for some time to come, giving rise to job displacement, skills mismatches and exceptionally high unemployment levels, particularly among our younger people.
As members will be aware, significant challenges remain for businesses as they adapt their models to provide a safe environment for employees and customers. Workers, too, are learning how to complete tasks remotely, enabled by digital communication tools, yet many activities and functions do not lend themselves to distance working. In the context of the dramatic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our labour market, the work of agencies such as Skillnet Ireland and SOLAS in upskilling those in employment has never been more important and will be a driving force as we enter a period of significant disruption that will require all of us to adapt and learn new skills.
Skillnet Ireland was set up by Government in 1999 to help meet these challenges. We were given a specific mandate to work directly with employers to develop the skills of those already in employment, and in doing so, contribute to the overall competitiveness of Ireland’s enterprise sector. I will note to the committee at this point that our mandate is distinct from that of apprenticeship and we do not have a formal role in the delivery of apprenticeship schemes.
Returning to in-employment upskilling, which is, yet again, the focus of our work, Skillnet Ireland uses a highly specialised approach, working directly alongside Ireland’s main industry groups, sectoral associations, industry clusters and chambers of commerce. Each of these groups operates and promotes its own distinctive Skillnet network. There are 73 Skillnet networks it total, covering every sector and every region in Ireland. Working with our partners, we identified the major trends shaping their sectors or region, for example, new digital skills, management skills, the impact of climate action, Brexit and Covid-19, but also how we can help jobseekers. This approach gives us direct access to thousands of companies and workers every year. In 2021, Skillnet Ireland will support 19,000 businesses nationwide, which I will stress are primarily small firms and microbusinesses, upskilling 70,000 workers and facilitating over 6,000 training programmes.
Our approach is very agile and responsive to the needs of employers. We also contribute, however, to substantial actions in many of the labour market and enterprise priorities set out in Government in policies and strategies. We played a key role in preparing Irish businesses for new realities posed by Brexit, for example, including rapidly upskilling more than 3,000 workers on new customs procedures through our clear customs
We have also been highly proactive in helping the business sector operate safely during this pandemic through our rebound scheme, which has supported more than 3,500 SMEs to date, limiting the spread of infection in industries spanning childcare, healthcare, manufacturing, hair and beauty, the creative sector, retail and hospitality.
Central Statistics Office, CSO, data from March tells us that in excess of 440,000 people are currently in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. We must not allow a long-term unemployment legacy to arise from this pandemic. With the support of our department, Skillnet Ireland has been on the ground since July of last year helping those who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic to find new employment opportunities.
Our Skills Connect scheme operates on the basis of cross-sector employability. By that I mean we help people move from sectors worst affected by the crisis to new jobs in growth sectors such as technology, healthcare, food production and in the green economy. Some 1,200 companies are supporting these Skills Connect schemes by hosting work placements for jobseekers, which we then combine with upskilling courses and other career supports. We have seen very strong employment outcomes to date through Skills Connect, with some programmes achieving an 80% conversion rate to employment.
Demand is strong, and we expect to support more than 8,000 jobseekers through Skills Connect this year.
I will now turn to climate change, the most pressing issue of our time, and the implications for businesses and workers as Ireland transitions to a low carbon and environmentally sustainable economy. This month, we launched our climate ready initiative, which will equip business with the skills to manage climate action but also to thrive in the green economy. In 2021, the initiative will see us support more than 1,100 companies and 3,000 workers in areas including sustainable business practices, skills for the renewables sector, clean water and sustainable finance. At a minimum, we will invest €10 million in green skills through the climate ready initiative over the coming four years.
Skillnet Ireland is funded through the national training fund. Our 2021 allocation is €41 million, representing approximately 5% of the fund in a given year. However, it is important to stress to the committee that Skillnet Ireland operates on a cost sharing basis with employers, where our grants are combined with investment from businesses. In 2019, employers made a total additional contribution of €22 million to Skillnet Ireland training programmes. This represents a highly efficient use of public moneys and an effective vehicle for State investment in the skills of our workers. To meet an ever-increasing demand for our services, with the assistance of our Department we are now pursuing a number of participation opportunities on EU programmes.
I would like to make a number of recommendations. In light of the challenges outlined, the Government should maintain a rigorous focus on developing the skills of those already in employment. It should implement in full the recommendations arising from the independent evaluation of the national training fund undertaken by Indecon, including greater priority being placed on supporting in employment training. It should also continue to expand demonstrably effective government and enterprise upskilling mechanisms, such as Skillnet Ireland, allowing us meet the serious demand we have, particularly from small firms that employ between 60% to 70% of our workforce.