With protests against the JobBridge scheme gaining momentum, Yvanne Kennedy highlights that reforming the system, and not cutting it, may be the answer

JobBridge, the previously much-praised initiative from the Department of Social Protection, which aims to provide internships to those on the Live Register, has come in for a rake of criticism of late. The scheme was set up in 2011 as a means of providing vital practical work experience and workplace skills to graduates.

Critics, however, have argued that positions filled by paid workers before the project’s implementation are now being dressed-up as internships, for which a small supplement to social welfare, rather than a working wage, is being paid.

Concerns raised by the extension of these ‘internships’, from 9 to 18 months, has brought the situation back into the spotlight, with national student and workers’ unions calling for a reversal of these plans.

The JobBridge scheme itself, as an idea, is not at fault. In an economy where paid work is difficult to come by, the idea that assistance would be given by the government to these workers to get the experience they needed really was brilliant. Perhaps it was a simple idea, but it is one that undoubtedly has helped a sizeable number of people.

To get experience, you need experience, and gaps in CVs have been plugged by the positions people were offered through JobBridge itself. The problem of exploitation has, however, eclipsed any positive press it has received.

It is a real and pressing issue, particularly for recent graduates hoping to gain the experience needed to acquire a paid position, but also for those deciding to up-skill while out of work. When the option of hiring either a full-wage worker or a cut-price, but equally as suitable candidate are presented to employers, the need to cut costs and corners would seem to be too tempting to refuse.

Bar a higher level of scrutiny of the scheme by the Department of Social Protection, there may seem that there is little that can be done. There are even difficulties with this, as the already cash-strapped department would need to assign a section of its office to this task, therefore prejudicing other vital services, or employ an inspector, or inspectors, at an additional cost.

The largest dilemma facing the scheme and the good that it is doing is the endemic lack of employment opportunities. When offered the option of receiving a moderate social welfare payment to job search day in and day out against the opportunity to gain experience, a small stipend, and potential opportunities for full-time work, the latter option can sound enticing.

The scheme came about in order to stem the growing tide of youth unemployment. Although, in some sense, it has cut certain graduates off from the prospect of work that could potentially lead to employment and has had a different, but potentially just as damaging, effect.

Some people are excluded from JobBridge due to the necessity that applicants must have been on the Live Register for three months prior to putting their names into the hat. Therefore, those who are working in low-paid work unrelated to their field of expertise are excluded from the opportunities under the scheme. It may be a smaller problem, but the overall impact is the creation of a culture where a full-time job is neither desirable to possess nor possible to achieve.

Ultimately, what needs to happen is an overhaul of the system. There is the basis of a good idea in place. If the extension of the scheme is structured and monitored, then there is a real opportunity to have a job at the end of it and prove that the system is beneficial to those struggling to apply their skills in areas of interest.