Always the first cut – vocational education and training in the Irish crisis
Advertising Ireland as a location for foreign direct investment, the Irish government highlights the country’s ‘highly skilled workforce’. In reality however, much vocational education and training been cut during the crisis. Furthermore, within the domestic economy there has been a longer term decline in training.
The first part of the talk will document this decline and its consequences in two different sectors using material from the Working Conditions in Ireland project.
Because so much is left to individual employers, the construction sector has always tended to neglect training and the provision of apprenticeships has always been subject to extreme fluctuation in line with the business cycle. Employment in Irish construction more than halved between 2008 and 2012 with a concomitant decimation of apprenticeship places. The crisis however also accelerated the hollowing out of construction firms as they outsourced more and more work. Sub-contracting chains have lengthened, self-employment and agency work have grown. Consequently, the number of firms able to offer apprenticeships, let alone continuing training, has been decimated.
Until the 1990s in hospitality some occupations (e.g. bar workers) had traditional apprenticeships and so had relatively clearly defined careers. However, as employment then became more casualised and part-time, these training routes disappeared. Instead entry to many occupations is either through an academic qualification or through private training providers (‘bar school’, ‘cookery school’) which make access difficult to young people not from a relatively privileged background. Jobs that once were a career for young working class males are now being colonised by ‘cool’ middle class youngsters.
The second part of the talk puts these specific experiences in a broader context. Using theories from political economy, I argue that Ireland as a liberal market economy (Hall and Soskice 2001) lacks the inter-firm institutions that are necessary for a strong vocational education system. Consequently far from producing a skilled workforce, the country is chronically prone to import skilled labour. This is supported by the importance of immigration not only for construction and hospitality, but also for the country’s much-vaunted software and internet sectors.