Ireland remains a very open and welcoming country for non-Irish nationals in our Labour Force. Quarter 1 2012 labour market statistics show there are 274,000 non-Irish nationals in our labour force of just over 2 million. Ireland remains a very attractive location for Foreign Direct Investment. Favourable demographics and consistent investment in education ensure a plentiful supply of highly qualified workers with excellent technical, language and customer services capabilities, as well as a reputation for flexibility and innovation. In addition, Irish employers have access to the EU and EEA labour force in accordance with EU law on freedom of movement or Accession Treaties.
While there are currently no Government plans to introduce a special technology visa it is current Government policy to issue new employment permits in respect of jobs requiring key skills and where there is a recognised scarcity of suitably skilled workers. With regard to the specific issue of employment permits for specified highly skilled and strategically important occupations, where a skills shortage exists, Green Card employment permits may be issued. ICT professionals, professional engineers and technologists are specifically catered for under this scheme. The criteria required to meet the conditions of green cards are less than for other employment schemes. The Department also operates an Intra-Company Transfer (ICT) scheme. This scheme is designed to facilitate the transfer of senior management, key personnel or trainees who are foreign nationals from an overseas branch of a multinational corporation to its Irish branch.
I should add that the Government is also guided by the Expert Group for Future Skills Needs and keeps its permit policy under review and can adapt to changing circumstances. The research undertaken by the Group, the Secretariat to which is provided by Forfás, indicates that the global ICT market is expected to grow by 5% between 2009 and 2014/15 with potential growth rate as high as 20% per annum over the next decade. In order to exploit these opportunities, however, it is crucial to ensure that Ireland's labour force is appropriately skilled. In this context the Group's report found that there are a range of skills and recruitment difficulties within the ICT sector with the result that, as at December 2011, there were approximately 1,800 vacancies in the sector. These vacancies arose mainly due to the lack of graduates with high-level ICT Honours Degrees and above which are required to fill such positions as Computer Software Engineers, ICT Network Specialists and Engineers, ICT Security Experts, ICT Telecommunications, ICT Project Managers and IT Sales and Marketing / Foreign Languages Skills Personnel. The report points out that this challenge is not unique to Ireland as such high level ICT skills are also in short supply globally.
In order to address these challenges from domestic sources I, along with my colleague, Deputy Ruairi Quinn, T.D., Minister for Education and Skills, subsequently launched the ICT Action Plan: Meeting the High Level ICT Skills Needs of Enterprise in Ireland. The Action Plan establishes an overreaching target of doubling the annual output from honours degree ICT undergraduate programmes to 2,000 graduates by 2018 and outlines a number of actions that will be implemented to ensure an increased output of appropriately skilled graduates in the medium term 2015-2018.
With regard to the points raised by the Deputy regarding research and development Ireland currently operates a scheme for admission of Third Country Researchers to Ireland. This arises from Ireland's implementation of Council Directive 2005/71/EC which was jointly transposed by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and the Department of Justice Equality and Law Reform in October, 2007. The purpose of the Council Directive is to facilitate the admission of third country researchers to EU Member States for the purpose of carrying out research. The mobility of researchers is one of the elements of the Europe 2020 Strategy and implementation of the European Research Area. Ireland's ability to attract high quality researchers is a key element of our strategy for Science Technology and Innovation.
The Irish Universities Association's (IUA) — EURAXESS office manages the day to day administration of the scheme that enables the fast tracking of non-EU researchers and their families to Ireland. The scheme has been very successful since it first commenced operation with, to date, over 1100 Hosting Agreements issued in respect of foreign researchers wishing to come to Ireland. Over 30 research organisations have so far been accredited by the Department with 60 countries currently being represented. These include the Irish universities, Institutes of Technology, other research institutions, and a number of private sector companies.
Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) includes among its portfolio of programmes a number of internationally focused programmes targeted at attracting top-class researchers to Ireland. This investment helps Ireland to develop a scientific research base that is internationally recognised for its standards of excellence. In addition, the Department of Justice has been open to accept applications under the Immigrant Investor Programme and the Start-up Entrepreneur Programme since 16 April of this year. My officials in Enterprise Ireland provide assistance in relation to this scheme.