Despite the global economic downturn the Irish labour market has been resilient with employment continuing to grow. A total of 1,820,800 persons were in employment in the third quarter of 2003, which represented an increase of 26,000 in the year. While job losses were experienced in some sectors, they were more than offset by employment opportunities in other sectors. The forecast for employment growth is estimated to be around 1% for this year. Average unemployment in 2003 was 4.7%, which is well below the EU average of 8%. The ESRI predict that it will remain at this level in the short to medium-term.
The challenge for the future is to ensure that Ireland makes a successful transition to innovation and knowledge-based competitiveness. This is being addressed through attraction of further foreign direct investment, increased commitment to investment in research and innovation and through training and upskilling to improve the quality of the labour force.
Ireland, through IDA Ireland, continues to win a major share of inward investment. Independent reviews confirm that Ireland's market share of inward investment into Europe continues to grow in spite of competition and the decrease in recent years in the overall pool of investment available. In 2003, IDA Ireland signed up 64 projects, including greenfield and expansion of existing business located here. Inward investment into Ireland represents 9% of the total into Europe.
The research environment in Ireland has been significantly altered as a result of the allocation of €2.5 billion to the research, technological development and innovation priority across a range of Departments and agencies under the national development plan, NDP. Key investments aimed at building Ireland's research capability are now under way. These are being delivered through Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, the programme of research in third level institutions and through increased support aimed at enhancing research and development capabilities in industry and promoting collaboration between industry and the third level sector. Overall spending on science and technology for 2004 represents an increase of 36% over 2003 levels. I have increased the budget for Science Foundation Ireland by €53 million to bring it up to €201 million.
Enterprise Ireland has also had a significant increase in the moneys available to it to support innovation and research and development within indigenous industry. That agency continues to offer a range of supports to enable companies to minimise negative economic factors, which have an impact on the sustainability of employment. This support focuses on a number of key areas such as developing exports, improving companies' competitiveness, providing funding for research, innovation and upskilling and encouraging new company start-ups.
FÁS continues to provide a wide range of advisory and human resource development services to industries and companies. FÁS works closely with companies to identify their training needs and in 2003 specific emphasis was placed on training for lower-skilled workers. A number of pilot programmes were undertaken in 2003 and further such programmes will be run in 2004. In addition, FÁS, in co-operation with the development agencies and local organisations, has developed a process of engagement with redundant workers, the purpose of which is to ameliorate the effects on local communities of lay-offs and company closures by identifying training needs, new opportunities for enterprise development and working with new promoters to build viable projects.