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Solas – A promising light in grim economic times

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Nearly a year ago, Minister for Education & Skills, Ruairí Quinn, announced details of the new further education and training authority, SOLAS (Seirbhísí Oideachais Leanunaigh Agus Scileanna), which was to replace FÁS.

At the time of the launch, the new agency SOLAS and the government were criticised for wasting tax payers money on a launch that was perceived as: a ‘rebranding and remarketing exercise’ on an inefficient and ineffective FÁS, which was associated with nepotism and waste. However, one year on and the initial highlighted differences between the two bodies (in relation to functions and services) are now coming into fruition.  Services and duties previously carried out by FÁS will now be taken over on a 50/50 basis by both the Department of Social Protection and the Department of Education. This does entail a division of duties; yet a closer and more structured collaboration between the two departments, at the same time. Clearly, a step in the right direction, given the clientele they share; those in receipt of unemployment benefit/assistance and in need of training and education in order to re-enter the workforce.

SOLAS is built on a foundation of lessons that have been learnt from FÁS’s dubious past. Highly critical reports laid bare a story of a this government department who fell short of their job remit – to get people trained and back to work. One report contained evidence that job seekers were significantly more likely to find employment by avoiding FÁS. Another report, based on analysis carried out by the independent Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) raised serious questions about the effectiveness of the €360m a year Community Employment scheme. The ERSI also revealed that more than half of FÁS’s €1.2 billion national training fund was spent on training courses with a poor record of returning people to employment; not to mention the €50m spent on travel, hospitality and advertising.

The replacement agency, SOLAS, will now be entrusted by the State for training and employment with the hope that serious weaknesses and negligences will not be uncovered in future reports. The new state agency is addressing ERSI’s concerns, especially in relation to the impacts of job search assistance in a regime with minimal monitoring and sanctions – a worrying discovery by the ERSI in relation to a stimulus designed to help unemployed people re-enter the labour market. Under the National Employment Activation Plan (NEAP), all dole claimants were meant to be referred automatically to FAS by the Department of Social Protection (DSP) when their claim reached the 13-week point on the Live Register. The ERSI said: “however, when we merged the customer Live Register data with the FAS events’ file, we found that a substantial proportion of qualifying claimants were not, in fact, referred. The ESRI team took a sample of 7,468 people on the Live Register for 20 weeks, and concluded that “approximately 20pc were not referred to FAS by the DSP system”. In other words, one in five was still not interviewed by FAS almost five months after becoming unemployed. In addition, they learned that 36pc of people invited for interview failed to appear. Some may choose not to turn up, and they recommended financial sanctions need to be implemented in such cases.

It is SOLAS’s role to ensure that these worrying figures are addressed and reduced in the future. International research indicates early intervention is crucial to get people back into the workforce. Yet, in Ireland, nobody gets interviewed at all until they spend at least three months out of work.

However, now with The Department of Social Protection taking responsibility for programmes such as the community employment schemes and further education & training areas going to The Department of Education & Skills; there will be more specialisation in roles and duties and hopefully a more effective and timely response to the unemployed. VECs now play a bigger role in relation to the delivery of courses and this is welcome news given that Vocational Educational Committees have an outstanding reputation for the development and delivery of courses by highly skilled trainers and educators.

SOLAS, as opposed to FÁS’s lack of relevant course provision, will provide courses that relate to new industries where jobs will be created. With FÁS, there was a questionable surplus of construction workers trained. The agency turned out far too many construction workers as noted by the Minister himself at the launch a year ago. This was despite the fact that projected future skills needs shortage did not indicate a lack of skilled workers in this dying industry. Many question, including those qualified in the sector: why didn’t FÁS look at the amount of unemployed construction workers and direct them earlier into courses that would qualify them to fill the many jobs in the ‘green energy business’ which is a huge growth area. Afterall, new properties may not be built for some time, but existing ones need to be upgraded or made more energy efficient. The ESRI have recommended using market intelligence to ensure SOLAS becomes closely aligned with labour market needs, which is neither radical nor complex to do.

SOLAS does represent a new light on an old but unfortunately expanding problems and this is evident in their roles and responsibilities:

o      SOLAS will fulfil a role for the further education and training sector similar to that exercised by the Higher Education Authority for higher education institutions. It will draw on its own expertise and that of the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs to help identify skills gaps, point to weaknesses and duplication in existing provision, and link courses more closely to both the needs of the individual and the labour market.

o      SOLAS will ensure that further education and training programmes provide jobseekers and other learners with the new skills needed for the new jobs in Ireland’s 21st century labour market, as outlined in the National Skills Strategy.

o      SOLAS will also ensure that there is a shift away from skills provision for traditional occupations like construction which have seen a huge fall in employment, and it will have a greater focus on training and education programmes which prepare jobseekers and other learners for occupations in growth areas like the services, ICT, medical devices, food and biopharmaceutical sectors.

o      SOLAS will champion a greater emphasis on generic, transferable skills including people-related skills, thinking and problem-solving skills and digital literacy skills. SOLAS will be underpinned by stronger quality assurance, occupational standards, international benchmarks and course content reviews.

It seems that the government have identified the obvious: the key to reducing unemployment is via education, relevant up-skilling, or retraining those unemployed in areas with existing or future skills shortage as opposed to continuing to train the unemployed for industries that had all the hallmarks of being overly supplied.

Aontas, the National Adult Learning Organisation recently responded to SOLAS and what they would like from this new government agency: ‘While further education and training is essential in assisting people to move into employment, learning also has a role beyond the labour market and a broad range of course options which support these benefits should be available to learners. Research on the benefits of adult learning commissioned by AONTAS in 2011 has identified outcomes such as better physical and mental health, increased civic engagement (e.g. volunteering) as well as personal and community development. SOLAS must commit to providing a variety of courses which cater to learners at all levels and ages, and strike the right balance between the needs of the labour market, the needs of communities and the needs of individuals.’ AONTAS are hoping for a more holistic state agency. Afterall, unemployment affects not just the unemployed – both mentally and physically; it affects families and communities.

The unemployment rate in Ireland was last reported at 14.3% in April of 2012 – an all-time high. Therefore, both Irish and European eyes will be firmly on SOLAS, to see if they can fulfil the expectations assigned to them. The vision and hope is that they in time will become as efficient and successful as the Higher Education Authority. The unemployed need courses that make them employable, and with future foreign investment, it is hoped that skilled workers/graduates will not have to be imported to fill roles for companies like Apple, PayPal, eBay, Facebook and Google. The alternative is a return to a time when training programmes offered little chance of future employment and where the unemployed went from one course to the other; often just to keep their benefits or to pass time.