Friday, March 07, 2014

Radical Thinking? No Thanks

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The Ministers for the Environment and Social Protection, Phil Hogan and Joan Burton respectively, are rolling out a new scheme for the long-term unemployed. If you’ve spent over two years on the dole you’ll now be offered a job with the local council, from street-sweeping to working in the local library or anything in between. You get another twenty Euro on top of your unemployment assistance if you do it, and your dole gets cut if you don’t.

Reaction, unsurprisingly, was mixed. There was a vocal section of the community who felt this was exploitation of people who were in a bad situation already, and a disgrace to the very notion of social justice and the dignity of the person. Then there was the less vocal population who thought a spot of hard labour was good enough for the work-shy layabouts..

The scheme, called Gateways, isn’t the worst idea in the world. The problem is that it’s so very far from being a good idea that it’s heartbreaking. For all the rhetoric after the crash and leading up to the last election, it’s clear that the new boss is just like the old boss, and any vague chance of innovative thinking is now lost. For all the trauma of the crash and the nation’s shocking return to the earth from the highs of empty-suitcase holidays to New York, we at least had a chance to rip things up and start again.

And did we take it? No, we did not. We settled, as we always do, for some tokenism. Now that the Troika are gone, it’s like neither the crash nor the boom ever happened, and politics has returned to what it would have been like in the 1980s if there had been no Charles Haughey to give it spice. Local squabbles given national importance while the country sinks slowly away and her young people leave in droves.

And the ones that don’t leave have nothing to do except pad around the house in despair, not going out because they can’t afford to, and watching the years suddenly accelerate by. And then two years are up and you get a letter from Gateways telling you that you’ve been chosen to cut the long acre by the cemetery outside of town and you wonder God, will you get an orange suit as well, like they get in Guantanamo? Will you sing spirituals while you work? And aren’t things bad enough without you being publically humiliated like this as well?

Say your business went wallop like so many did during the crash and you know that the people in the village are saying that your cough wanted softening alright, you and your coffee machine and smart phone and three pairs of shoes. What will they say now when you’re out with your long-handled sickle? Could the Minister not just put you in the stocks in the town square and be done with it?

And then there’s the other side. Even at the height of the boom, there were still long-terms unemployed people in Ireland. When it seemed like every single person behind a shop counter was from Liberia, Lithuania or some parish in between and could no more speak English than the average Irish person can speak Irish, there was a still a large indigenous population who couldn’t get any of those jobs, even when they spoke English all their lives. There’s something funny going on there.

So there it is. We talk about the long-term unemployed like they’re a homogenous lump, the one just like the other. Whereas they’re exactly like ourselves because they are ourselves, but for accidents of circumstance – bright people and dumb people and busy people and lazy people and every sort of pilgrim that ever walked.

On the face of it, the Gateways initiative sounds great. But it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Once the novelty has worn off it’s just another hoop in the social-welfare infrastructure of the state, that’s good enough to keep the disadvantaged from starving but not good enough to break the generational cycle of the thing.

The people voted for radical thinking. Where is it? What’s being done that’s a radical approach to this? For instance: Denis Naughten floated an idea before Christmas about welfare payments to families being linked to children’s performance in education. Did anything ever come of that? Was it discussed at the Reform Alliance Conference? Or was it let just wither on the vine?

What are we doing about reskilling people? The universities are pumping out IT graduates but the IT managers who drink pints with this column when this column is off-duty all say that hiring is hellishly difficult at the moment. Yes, the graduates have skills but they’re not the right skills, in the same way a plumber’s skills aren’t a carpenter’s.

So what can people do? If you can learn one computer language you can learn them all. What opportunities are there to get quickly qualified in a single-hot skill language? None. Irish tertiary education isn’t modular. You have to do a three year course and what in God’s Holy Name is the point in doing a three year course to learn one single language you can learn in three months?

You could buy a book from Amazon and learn it that way, of course. But if you don’t have a qualification the recruiters recognise, the recruiters don’t want to know.

So. if the Government really wanted to be radical it could:

  • Run modular courses for different computer specialties, as informed by the major employers in that sector
  • Phase out benefits rather than suddenly cutting them off when someone leaves the long-term unemployed list
  • Persuade employers and recruiters to be a little more expansive in their hiring policy, and to remember that skills are only a component of what makes a good employee. Skills can be taught. Character, not so much.

And that’s just three things that the Government could do at hardly any cost but with tremendous potential reward. What do we get instead? Job-bridge apprentices and Gateway grasscutters. Have we any tears left to shed?