Belfast Telegraph

Eager workforce is the ticket out of this recession

By Brendan Keenan

At the height of the George Lee affair, I wrote that people may have mistaken analysis for answers. One thing we can be sure of is that they are desperate to hear some plausible answers as to how we can escape the current economic crisis.

One of the most palpable reactions has been a sense of loss. After decades — even centuries — of struggle, the Republic seemed to have achieved what had so long eluded it: employment and generous living standards for the vast majority of citizens. The speed with which the crash appeared to sweep all this away has been shocking. The period of hope and achievement seems pitifully short — no more than 15 years at best. It would be easy to believe that it was just an aberration in the |long, painful economic history |of Ireland.

That may well be what most people do believe, but they are wrong. It is far from the case that everything has disappeared under the global recessionary tide. It is true that our problems are more severe than those of most countries. And there are two reasons for this: the size of the construction boom, and the scale of bank lending to finance that boom. |In other respects, the Irish |economy is not that different |from others.

But the collapse of the building industry devastated growth and employment. And the banking troubles will be a long-term drag on the economy.

As well as the sense of loss, there is clearly a sense of helplessness. That too, is unjustified. The bubble may have been built on construction and bank lending, but the modern Irish economy was not. In some respects, it is in better underlying shape than it was before the crash.

There is plenty to build upon in a country which, even after the crash, has income per person of at least €30,000 a year and almost two million people at work.

Dr Martin McAleese's campaign, Your Country, Your Call, is designed to both alleviate those feelings of loss and helplessness, and to find some longed-for answers to the country's problems. Because of our history of emigration, the purpose of economic policy has always been the creation of jobs — even more than an increase in incomes.

The bulk of the job losses — over 100,000 — has been in the building industry. The challenge is to use the skills of those workers for other purposes.

One of the unusual features of this recession is the number of white-collar professionals who lost their jobs. I expect many of them will have their own ideas for the campaign.

Applications for college places are rocketing, given the shortage of jobs for school leavers. How can the education system best adapt, not only to absorb the extra numbers but to focus on the qualifications which will best equip students to find or create work when they leave?

Yes, ‘create’ work. This is the most entrepreneurial generation Ireland has ever produced and the success of other idea websites shows that many of those who lost out in the crisis responded with their own initiatives. But it is tough. And the danger is people lose heart as plans do not achieve the results they had hoped for.

Your Country, Your Call can do more than its target of producing two great ideas with ‘game-changing’ potential. It can involve thousands of people in a determined response and, just as important, in a belief that it can succeed.

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