Column: The dole queue or the departure lounge? This is the choice Ireland’s youth is facing

The latest emigration figures offer little hope to the young people of Ireland – the government must act now and produce a national jobs strategy for young people, writes Joe O’Connor.

Joe O’Connor President of the Union of Students in Ireland

LAST WEEK’S CSO figures confirmed what anyone working with Irish students and graduates already knows – the recent fall in the Live Register owes more to the emigration of 35,000 of our best and brightest than it does to new job creation.

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny recently told European leaders that youth unemployment is ‘an abomination’. Tánaiste Éamon Gilmore tells us he has reached an agreement with the OECD to develop an action plan for Ireland, to tackle a crisis that has left nearly 30 per cent of Irish 15-24 year olds without work.

Words and gestures like these won’t comfort the 51 per cent of Irish students who expect to have to emigrate on completion of their degrees, or their families. Well-meaning platitudes and broad non-commitments just won’t cut it for the thousands of qualified graduates whose options are simple – the dole queue or the departure lounge.

That’s why this Thursday, the Union of Students in Ireland, along with ICTU (Irish Congress of Trade Unions) and ISSU (Irish Secondary Students’ Union), are offering solutions.

What will the Ireland of tomorrow look like?

Investing in a Future that Works, a joint policy paper, sets out deliverable policy proposals that will ensure young people:

  • Can make a smooth transition from education to employment;
  • Can participate in work placements that will give them real and worthwhile learning opportunities;
  • Can enter the labour market and enjoy conditions that will provide them with a decent standard of living.

This collaborative effort between student leaders – second and third level – and young workers is a positive response to the issues currently facing Ireland’s youth. It offers a different approach to what are enormous challenges.

The upcoming Budget

With October’s Budget looming, we are calling on the Government to produce a National Jobs Strategy for Young People. This will need investment, but it is a worthwhile investment in the Ireland of tomorrow.

It must include real and significant investment in the European Youth Guarantee, to ensure that all young people will be offered a job, training place apprenticeship or education course within four months of being out of work. Matching EU funding with substantial investment from the Irish exchequer will allow the Youth Guarantee to make a real difference.

The JobBridge internship scheme has shown how a lack of oversight and monitoring can see a well-meaning initiative exploited by unscrupulous employers. The partners in our collaboration are offering proposals on best practice for work placements, internships and apprenticeships to combat this, and should be fully consulted in the rollout of an Irish Youth Guarantee.

Ensuring graduates have an edge

The fundamental difficulty facing Irish graduates in finding work at home is the lack of opportunities, but this mustn’t stop us from looking at how we can improve the employability of our graduates.

In a crowded market, employers are always looking for ‘that little bit more’ from graduates. Often graduates develop these additional skills through extra-curricular activities – volunteering, civic and community engagement and participation in clubs and societies. For this reason, we are calling for a national accreditation system to recognise this work.

Beyond this, we must do more to embed core skills that boost employability and work-readiness – communications, ICT skills, numerical reasoning – into course curricula. Enterprise modules across all disciplines would help instill in our graduates an ethos of entrepreneurship that can allow them to play a part in rebuilding our economy.

Fourth-level, research and excellence

Graduating in 2011, young people had three options – to emigrate, to sign-on, or to continue into postgraduate education. But with postgraduate grants and fee maintenance now all but abolished, that third option has been taken away from many Irish students

The Government’s response – endorsing a commercial loan product with a punitive interest rate – is just not good enough. This unfair ‘solution’ does not lift the barrier that was dropped in front of an entire cohort of disadvantaged students in 2011.

Irish graduates must have every opportunity to advance their education, to carry out research and to achieve excellence. We need a state-backed or state-supported affordable loan option that will allow excellent students, who may not otherwise have the means, to pursue education beyond third-level.

The crisis of youth unemployment throws up many complex and interlinked problems. The solutions to these problems lie with Ministers across a variety of Government departments– Minister Burton in the Department of Social Welfare, Minister Bruton in the Department of Jobs, and Minister Quinn in Education. This cannot be allowed to fall between the different stools. It requires a joined up effort inside Government. And USI, ICTU and ISSU are ready to help.

How this Government fares in tackling this crisis will be its enduring legacy. It’s time to get real about youth unemployment

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