There’s no excuse for fastest-growing economy in EU to keep using JobBridge

JobBridge was introduced as a temporary measure in 2011 at the height of the economic crisis. But why is it still in existence now that Ireland has the fastest growing economy in the EU?

Last week, acting Health Minister Leo Varadkar said the HSE was raiding €15m from the paltry €35m mental health budget because of a delay in recruiting staff. Odd then that instead of using this budget, the HSE has instead used JobBridge 67 times to hire psychologists.

Since 2011, the HSE has used the scheme to fill nearly 400 roles, including speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, medical physicists, counselling psychotherapists and assistant psychologists. In August last year, it defended advertising a position on JobBridge for a clinical psychologist to work in Waterford’s mental health services for nine months, saying the position would provide “a stepping stone” for applicants.

Clearly, despite the lengthy waiting lists for mental health services in this country, this stepping-stone doesn’t lead to employment in the overburdened public health system.

Last year, the Children’s Mental Health Coalition reported that one in seven children waits for more than a year to access appropriate services. In November, it was reported that more than 3,000 children were on waiting lists for mental health services.

How then can the HSE justify slashing the derisory mental health budget, because of a supposed inability to hire staff, while using JobBridge to hire psychologists and a psychotherapist?

The HSE has defended its use of interns by stating they gain valuable experience. But, if the HSE can fill vacancies using poorly paid interns, why does it purportedly experience such difficulties finding staff, being offered the market rate, when it comes to spending a ring-fenced mental health budget?

Much of the controversy that has dogged the national internship scheme is entirely of the Government’s own making, with the Department of Social Protection commissioning only one independent review of the programme, by Indecon in 2012. It has failed to adequately monitor it since then.

That report found 61pc of interns had moved to employment within five months of completing their internship, and this bald figure has been repeated ad nauseam by Government ministers championing JobBridge as a genius intervention in the labour market.

However, they rarely cite the other, more troubling, details the report contained.

For example, those who were lucky enough to enter employment were paid just 56pc of average earnings across the economy as a whole – despite the fact that the vast majority of JobBridge interns, or 64pc, had a degree, while nearly 23pc had postgraduate qualifications.

Due to concerns that JobBridge had the potential to displace paid employment from the economy, and because it was hard to gauge what this would be so soon into its operation, Indecon recommended a “more fundamental review” be carried out every two years.

No such review was carried out in the past four years, and only this year is the Department of Social Protection comprehensively investigating the scheme. That report is due to be published in September.

Having failed to review, it should hardly come as a surprise the department also proved inept at censuring companies found to be abusing JobBridge. Last year, it lifted bans on 86 such firms after deciding they had not been afforded fair procedures.

So, five years into a scheme used by tens of thousands of people, the department had yet to devise a robust method of investigating complaints.

Indecon isn’t the only organisation to recommend a root-and-branch review of JobBridge. The National Youth Council, Impact trade union and the OECD have all released reports stating the scheme is too broad, expensive, unwieldy and failing to serve the people who need it most.

In 2013, the OECD said it was concerned JobBridge was being used primarily as a subsidy for employers “rather than as a genuine internship programme aimed at facilitating the transition of inexperienced young workers to the labour market”. In 2014, it was even more explicit, stating JobBridge was “large and expensive” and “not targeted specifically at the most disadvantaged groups”.

In 2015, Impact released a comprehensive report stating the scheme needed to be “fully dissolved into three distinct voluntary internship type programmes”, each catering for very different groups – a youth development programme, a graduate job placement programme and a work experience programme targeted at the long-term unemployed.

Echoing concerns that had first been highlighted by Indecon, it said that as the economy improves, the risk of “dead weight” associated with the scheme increases – namely, higher-skilled people, like graduates, are more likely to secure employment in the absence of JobBridge, making it an inefficient use of State resources.

Figures compiled by the ‘Sunday Business Post’ also suggest that certain private-sector employers have become over-reliant on its use to fill vacancies. For instance, while Supervalu franchises around the country have used JobBridge a total of 161 times since its inception, just one outlet in Sallins has used the internship scheme a staggering 76 times – or nearly 50pc of the total.

Is this right? Well, no one in the department seems to have a problem with it, because that Supervalu in Sallins is currently advertising five more positions on the JobBridge website – butcher, price controller, check-out supervisor, protein department manager and food safety manager.

People with different educational levels, experience, and skill sets need targeted programmes to help them access the labour market, not the broad, clumsy one-size-fits-all approach that JobBridge offers.

As the OECD concluded in 2014, JobBridge “may have been acceptable at a time of chronic unemployment, but as unemployment starts to decline such efforts should be more closely targeted on vulnerable groups most at risk of remaining jobless”.

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