As the JobBridge internship scheme continues to operate in Ireland, Patrick Kelleher looks at how effective it has been in reducing unemployment.
The JobBridge scheme has been operating in Ireland since 2011, and was introduced by the Department of Social Protection as a response to rising unemployment and economic recession. Interns who operate on the scheme receive social welfare payments, and also receive a 50 euro bonus each week.
The JobBridge scheme remains in place today, despite an improved economy. Unemployment is down to 9.5 per cent, and the economy has largely recovered from what was the worst economic crisis seen in years. Despite this, there are currently over 4,600 participants on the JobBridge programme.
Mary Murphy, a sociology lecturer in NUI Maynooth, was involved in the compilation of a report for IMPACT, a public services trade union. The report, entitled ‘JobBridge – Time to start again?’, is “a proposal to reframe, restrict and resize Irish Internship Policy”.
Murphy says that IMPACT were prompted to write the report when they discovered that there were positions being advertised on the scheme for special needs assistants. “They saw it as a direct displacement of real jobs, so to them it was that JobBridge was being used to displace actual jobs in the economy, which there was an agreement that it shouldn’t do,” she explains.
For Murphy, one of the main issues was the lack of regulation of JobBridge positions. “There’s a chart in the report that analyses the kind of regulations that exist in different countries, and Ireland comes out fairly poor in relation to regulation, on a number of variables of regulation,” Murphy explains. “So say for example, the absence of regulation in health and safety and occupational injury regulation for people who are on JobBridge placements, so if they had an accident in those places, for example, it would be very unclear as to whether they would be covered under any kind of social insurance – well it’s not totally unclear, in my view they wouldn’t be.”
However the greatest issue is the displacement of actual jobs, which Murphy believes the scheme is responsible for. This is especially true for young people and recent graduates. “It’s primarily geared towards addressing the lack of work experience that young people have when they’re trying to access employment for the first time… So it’s primarily therefore targeted at people whose primary barrier to work is lack of work experience. If it’s actually displacing the kind of jobs that people would often get as a first entry job, or a stepping stone type job, then it’s actually more damaging to young people, because it’s taking away from the possibility that those jobs would actually exist in the first instance.”
Murphy says that the IMPACT report isn’t arguing for the removal of the work placement scheme, and acknowledges that “sometimes the absence of work experience might well be a barrier to employment for some people”. What they are arguing for is tighter control of an internship programme.
“We’re saying scale it down, scale it back, have it maybe as a program where somebody has an explicit need whereby they are not likely to get a job unless they have some form of work experience… Because most graduates, if there’s jobs there, they’ll get the job without having gone through a JobBridge program.”
Despite Murphy’s criticisms of the scheme, Declan Clear, who up until last week worked on a JobBridge internship in the Classics department in UCD, was favourable of both his employers and the scheme itself. Having worked in the Classics department for five months on a JobBridge scheme, Clear, who is educated to master’s level, says that the scheme gave him the work experience he needed that helped him gain a full time job in a London university. He says that he doesn’t know if there would have been an offer of a full time job in UCD at the end of the scheme.
“While I was on the JobBridge I was applying for other university jobs in Ireland, and I was having limited success,” Clear explains. “To be honest there were limited jobs available, the availability in Ireland is very poor. So I kind of shifted my focus towards the UK. I don’t know, to tell you the truth, I don’t know if I would have been offered something. If I was I would have been happy to take it.”
While Clear speaks very highly of both the School of Classics and the University, he says that it is a challenge to get by on the wages.
“I think one of the toughest things about it is they give you fifty euro extra… and realistically that extra money you get is burned on if you’re travelling to work. So for me, I spent 5.60 a day on transport in and out of work, so after a week that’s 30 euro pretty much gone. So I suppose when you’re working in an office setting, it can be kind of harder when you’re on the JobBridge to do things that your fellow workers are doing, or have the same resources.”
Clear lived at home while working under the JobBridge scheme in UCD, and notes the difficulties associated with the cost of living in Dublin. He says that surviving on the money offered by a JobBridge scheme for those who have to rent accommodation would be a challenge. “I can’t imagine someone surviving on JobBridge, they’d have to be on rent supplement on top of that then, otherwise there’s not a chance.”
The University Observer can reveal that there were 16 interns working on the JobBridge programme in UCD as of 23rd September 2015, information that was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. These interns are placed across 11 Schools/Units within the University. This information also revealed that since 1st January 2014, UCD has taken on ten interns as full members of staff at the end of their schemes. While UCD has a good record with taking on interns as staff, this is not true of every employer. Since the scheme’s inception in 2011, there has been substantial material published criticising the scheme, and there has been much discussion around perceived abuses.
In a statement released to the University Observer by the Department of Social Protection, they reiterate that the scheme was introduced as an extraordinary measure in 2011. They say that it was “an extraordinary and temporary response to the unprecedented collapse in the economy.”
In their statement, they acknowledge the changed economic circumstances, stating: “The Department is eager… to review the scheme to take account of the changed economic circumstances and operational experience. The aim of the review [is] to assess the suitability, relevance and effectiveness of the JobBridge internship programme to date.”
What is clear from both Murphy and Clear is that, while the JobBridge scheme has its benefits, it has become an outdated system and needs reform. It was introduced to alleviate the burden on unemployed people during the economic recession. However, as the economy continues to improve, it is time for the introduction of a new internship scheme that will pay its interns appropriately, as well as offer opportunities for unemployed people to reskill. There needs to be tighter regulation that will ensure that internships are not undercutting the economy by displacing jobs. Through this, interns will be equipped to better themselves and gain valuable, full-time employment.