Be smart: Jobs first, smart economy second
The smart economy is a nice idea, perhaps even a good idea. But like most nice ideas, when exposed to reality, the smart economy just breaks down. The smart economy as a concept takes no notice of the detail: who is looking for what type of job right now, and how long will it take those people to train for new ones?When confronted by the facts, we have to augment our industrial development strategy if we want to protect the real, on-the-ground, economy.
(Picture: Abandoned Factory in Raheen, Limerick by Slinky2000 via Flicker)
A smart economy is supposed to drive economic growth by bringing in or creating ‘high value added‘ jobs for well-qualified people, who, because these jobs pay really well, make and spend lots of money locally, and pay lots of taxes, thus boosting the local and national economy. The smart economy idea has merit, but if we created the smart economy in full, no-holds-barred, tomorrow, if the smart economy succeeded beyond our policy makers’ wildest dreams, it wouldn’t help most of the people in the Mid-West region who are unemployed for 3-5 years. This is because the idea of the smart economy is at variance with the facts of the type of unemployment in the Mid-West right now.
The fact of the matter is that most of those newly unemployed come from construction and services, and will require significant and costly retraining, which may take years, to make them eligible for ’smart economy’ jobs, even if those jobs were plentiful. The reserve of labour the Mid-West has right now, to be clear, is best helped by intensive retraining and retooling of a portion of the workforce, while providing state-stimulated projects to help workers and the local economy while retraining. Three infrastructural projects with long-run benefits to the region that are shovel-ready are the Links project, the expansion of Foynes port, and the Regeneration project, not to mention the 20+ recommendations of the Mid West Taskforce. Implementing large capital projects concurrent with up-skilling, retraining, and business development programmes takes care of the time lags involved in training workers, boosts the local economy, and does not overly harm the debt: GDP ratio of a country running headlong into +100 per cent debt: GDP territory in any case. The question to answer when thinking of borrowing for these types of projects is: does the long term social benefit exceed the long term social cost? If the benefits are a halt or reduction in the increase in unemployment, the creation of new capital and a reduction in social maladies like poor health and lawlessness, combined with an increase in local consumption and investment, coupled with the retraining of a large portion of the unemployed workforce, then, set against the cost of borrowing a fraction of the cost of NAMA’s €54 billion to achieve those ends is, for me, worth it. I’d welcome any costings on such projects–if the long term benefits turn out to be less than the costs, I’ll shut up.
You might ask why the Mid-West is different, why it should receive special treatment ahead of other regions with similar, if not worse, problems.
The answer is historical. The Mid-West has underperformed economically relative to the rest of Ireland throughout the boom years. There are many reasons for the region’s underperformance, but the fact remains. To focus exclusively on creating high-value added jobs is to disenfranchise tens of thousands of unemployed persons in the Mid-West region, because they just won’t get those jobs. The smart economy, rather than helping the newly unemployed, has hurt them, by diverting funds which could have helped them to other uses.
I am not arguing for a return to the days of the construction boom: those days are gone, and good riddance to them. I’m asking that we look squarely at the data first, talk to people on the ground, and ask them what they need. Couple that with local and international expertise, and get something credible, accountable, and practical started inside of 6 weeks. Not 18 months. Not 24 months. Certainly not 3-5 years. Our unemployed can’t wait that long.