I am very well aware of the skills shortages currently being experienced in the construction sector. The issue is all the more pressing given the strong economic growth being experienced and the high demand being placed on the sector to respond to a range of construction needs across the economy. I have also met with Construction Industry Federation representatives to discuss the labour and skills challenges in the sector.
The employment permits system is managed through the operation of the Highly Skilled Eligible Occupations List (HSEOL) and the Ineligible Categories of Employment List (ICEL). These lists are reviewed twice yearly to keep pace with rapid labour market changes and to be proactively identifying and addressing shortages as they arise.
A review of the occupation lists is being currently being finalised and my officials, in consultation with officials from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, is actively considering the 50 submissions received including a detailed submission from the Construction Industry Federation. I expect, in the very short term, to receive proposals, based on the evidence presented and extensive consultation with the Interdepartmental Group on Economic Migration, for changes to both the ineligible and highly skilled occupational lists.
It is currently taking 6 weeks to process applications for trusted partners and 15 weeks for standard applications. My Department is taking steps to improve these processing times. The main reason for the delays is the high levels of demand last year for employment permits, due to our economic success, growing labour market and reduced labour surplus.
At the end of December some 16,800 applications were received which were approx. 30% higher than 2017. Over the same period some 13,400 permits were granted representing an almost 20% increase over last year. Quarter 4 in 2018 saw the highest number of permits issued in any quarter in the previous 10 years.
There are currently approximately 2,110 permit applications in the processing queue down from a peak of 3,230 in September 2018. Through a combination of increased resources, staff working overtime and ICT and operational improvements, processing times are now at 5 weeks for Trusted Partners, and 15 weeks for standard applications. Further improvements are expected in the coming weeks.
As well as the short-term measures introduced to date, the development of a new IT system is being explored which will take advantage of all the new technologies available, including full digitization. In parallel with this new development, my Department is determined to continue to reduce processing times and is engaging extensively with stakeholders to ensure that they are fully aware of the situation.