Why Ireland is looking to attract more global talent

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  • businesses in Dublin, Ireland
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Published on 2022-09-20 at 14:00 by Ameerah Arjanee
Like many countries, Ireland has been suffering from a labor shortage since the pandemic. This situation is aggravated by a rapidly aging population and a brain drain of the young Irish. In response, the government has implemented new measures to attract global talent. Why does brain gain co-exist with brain drain in Ireland, and what are the state's new measures?

Ireland's two-way flow of labor: brain drain and brain gain

Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore and other high-income countries have been experiencing labor shortages since the pandemic. The reasons behind this are many, from the deaths of workers from Covid-19 to the interruption in migration when borders were closed to the Great Resignation (where millions in the US voluntarily quit their jobs). Ireland is in the same situation, but with an added peculiarity. It is simultaneously experiencing both a “brain drain” – an exodus of high-skilled locals – and a “brain gain” – a substantial influx of foreign professionals. 

Indeed, many young scientists, entrepreneurs, doctoral students, medical professionals, etc., are leaving for better career advancement and a better standard of living in other EU (European Union) and English-speaking countries (e.g., Australia, the United Kingdom). At the same time, for many years now, there has been a pattern of high-skilled migrants from low-income and middle-income countries moving to Ireland. For example, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland reports that an increasing number of doctors in the country were born and trained in Pakistan, Sudan, South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt – in 2015, before the pandemic, 28% of all doctors in Ireland hailed from the aforementioned four African countries. 

After the blow of the pandemic, Ireland is having to rely even more on this foreign labor. Schengen Visa Info reports that even if Ireland currently has a low 4.2% unemployment rate, many vacancies remain unfilled: there simply are not enough workers, or not enough workers with the right skills. According to the data technology firm Knoema, nearly 15% of the Irish population (around 750,000 people) is over 65 – and hence (generally) retirees who do not contribute to the workforce. Population aging is likely to speed up, especially as the country has a high life expectancy (85 for men, 88 for women). Immigration is required to both care for all these elderly people (in healthcare and aged care) as well as make the economy run in general in order to fund the welfare state, including pensions.

The cost of living is making young Irish leave

Why are young Irish workers not enough for the country to depend on economically? One reason is that Ireland, like many high-income countries, has a declining birth rate (1.8 births per woman in 2022, according to Koema), and a second reason is that many young Irish adults are leaving the country for greener pastures.

The Irish Examiner reports a recent study commissioned by the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI) and conducted by RedC Research & Marketing. The study surveyed young Irish between 18 and 24, revealing that 70% are considering moving abroad. The main reason for wanting to leave is the cost of living, especially of rent, the inability to make savings, and worsening mental health under these economic conditions.

It might come as a surprise to some that Ireland, especially the capital Dublin, is not much cheaper than countries or cities which are more notoriously known for their cost of living. According to Eurostat, Ireland was the second most expensive country in the European Union (EU) to live in in 2021, ranking after Denmark. Consumer prices in Ireland are 40% above the EU average. According to the country's Residential Tenancy Board, a one-bedroom flat in Dublin now costs an average of 2000 euros per month. In comparison, the same type of accommodation costs 800-1200 euros per month in Barcelona's city center, according to the rental agency Equinox Urban Housing. 

Case in point, on RTE News, a 24-year-old entrepreneur by the name of Evan McGloughlin says that he has a better standard of living since relocating from Dublin to Barcelona earlier this year. He says that his rent has decreased by threefold and that he now has more savings and disposable income to enjoy his youth. In addition, having an EU passport makes it easy for them to move to other member states of the union, even when they are self-employed or at the beginning of their career. 

Outside the EU, Australia and the United Kingdom are popular destinations. Another young Irish person interviewed by RTE News, Elana Murphy, moved to London recently and says that even if the UK's capital is expensive and she's now getting paid less, ironically enough she's managing to save on rent and will be able to afford a property mortgage. In Ireland, she would struggle to ever become a homeowner. 

On TikTok, the video of a spoken word poem by a young Irish woman by the name of Alice Kiernan, which has won over 80 thousand likes, describes her “love/hate” relationship” with Dublin. In the poem, she says that even as she loves the city and the memories it has given her, she feels that “[...] Dublin is squeezing me [her] out, hungry for my money, my friends, my job and my house.” Many commenters on the video say they relate to it on a deep level, that they love Ireland, its history and traditions, but are finding it increasingly hard to live there.

Professionals in prestigious and highly-paid fields are not spared from the exodus. The report “Brain Drain to Brain Gain: Ireland's Two-Way Flow of Doctors,” published by Aisling Walsh and Ruairi Brugha for the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 2017, prior to the pandemic, details the issues harming workforce retention in the Irish healthcare system. They cite poor access to training and lack of career progression (i.e., unclear career paths) as major factors driving doctors, especially general practitioners between 24-35, out of Ireland. While no statistics are available about the number of doctors who left after the pandemic, it can be assumed that they are also part of the current exodus of young Irish professionals. 

Ireland's new measures to attract foreign labor

The Irish government has recently adopted new measures to attract and retain more high-skilled foreign workers. Still, the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI) emphasizes that it must also focus on improving the lives of the Irish youth to dissuade them from leaving. 

The government released an updated Critical Skills Occupation List in June 2022, when the new Employment Permits (Amendment) (No 2) Regulations also came into effect. Qualified foreigners with work experience in the jobs on this list are eligible for the Critical Skills Employment Permit. The permit requires a job offer of at least 2 years from an Irish employer and a minimum yearly remuneration package of at least 32,000 euros, according to the information provided by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (DETE) of the Irish government. 

The jobs on this list de facto require a degree. Job sectors on the list include healthcare (medical practitioners, industrial pharmacists, audiologists, radiographers, etc.), midwifery and nursing (registered nurses and midwives), business and finance (chartered accountants and taxations experts, management consultants, statisticians, etc.), education (PhD-educated academics), ICT (software developers, web designers, systems architects, IT business analysts, etc.), architecture (architects, quantity surveyors, etc.), the arts and media (art directors, animators, prop designers, etc.), engineering (civil engineers, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, etc.), sports (high-performance coaches and directors), and marketing (international marketing experts, multilingual sales executives, etc.). The full list can be consulted on the DETE's website.

Some high-skilled foreigners whose occupations do not figure on the aforementioned list can still apply for the Critical Skills Employment Permit, provided they have a job offer that pays at least 64,000 euros per annum. However, prospective expats with a job offer of less than two years should instead apply for the General Employment Permit, not for this Critical Skills Employment Permit. 

The latter has various advantages over other work visas. Firstly, it does not require the employer to undertake a Labour Market Needs Test. For the record, this test requires an employer to advertise a job locally for four weeks to see if they can't find any suitable local candidate before they are allowed to recruit from abroad. Secondly, the permit makes family reunification very easy. Permit holders can immediately apply to bring their families to Ireland, and their family members can obtain a Dependent/Partner/Spouse Employment Permit free of charge to work in the country. And thirdly, after the 2-year duration of the permit, the expat can apply for permission to remain in Ireland without necessarily having a new employment permit or job offer.

In addition to the Critical Skills Employment Permit, the Irish government is taking further measures to attract and retain foreign doctors. As previously mentioned, the Irish public healthcare system depends a lot on expatriate doctors from low-income and middle-income countries. Apart from Africa and Asia, Ireland also attracts many doctors from East Europe, especially from Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland (Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland). To encourage this trend, the Irish government announced that, effective September 21, doctors from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) who have lived in Ireland for at least 21 months under a General Employment Permit can now apply to work without any new permit. Their spouses and dependents (children under 23 in full-time education) will also receive permission to work.

All of these measures to attract foreign talent are very good, but the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI) reminds the government that local young people must not be neglected either because they are also valuable workers. The NYCI recommends a decrease in domestic higher education fees, increased funding of youth work services, an increase of the allowance granted to young jobseekers and of the minimum wage earned by those under 20 (as from January 2023, over-20s are entitled to €11.30 per hour while under-20s only get between €7.91-10.17), and extending the Youth Travel card to more young adults. Indeed, it does seem wise to not only accelerate the country's brain gain but also put a stop to its brain drain.