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Overqualified and under-employed – our young people face an uphill battle

The Irish Times, 01 April 2015 - Are you one of the many Irish workers who are overeducated for their jobs? One in three of us is, according to new research.

Maybe your first in philosophy led to a first-class position cleaning cars, or your master’s in Anglo-Irish literature landed a day job in sorting fish. If so, you’re not alone. Ireland holds the proud distinction of having the highest percentage of overqualified workers in the European Union. This gruesome statistic has been unearthed by ESRI researchers Adele Bergin, Seamus McGuinness and Adele Whelan.

The finding was presented at a conference in February. The researchers’ working paper, “Over-education in Europe: Is There Scope for a Common Policy Approach?”, is now being reviewed by peers and should eventually be published by a EU-funded programme, Strategic Transitions for Youth Labour in Europe.

Not all overqualified workers feel trapped, of course. A stay-at-home mum who used to be a teacher might be happy to augment her family’s income by helping out at the local playschool. A dad who was bounced out of middle management during the crash could be willing to take any job, any, to feed his family.

But I’m a mum, so my heart goes out to the young people in this plight. How horrible to be trying to make your way in the world now. First, you’re nagged by teachers and parents to get the best possible Leaving Cert, then you get a degree, which you discover isn’t good enough, so you find a way to pay thousands of euro for a master’s.

And what’s your reward? A well-paid, secure job that stimulates your intellect and uses all your expensively acquired skills, of course. Just joking. More likely, it’s a zero-hours contract, a bit of freelance work or, at best, a short-term contract. Or even, that triumph of 21st-century capitalism: an “internship”, ie work without pay.

Adele Bergin stresses that this research is preliminary, so it’s too soon to say why exactly Ireland has so many overeducated workers. Maybe students are opting for courses that don’t lead to jobs, and so need better career guidance. Should work placements be part of third-level education? Do universities understand and provide the skills that employers are willing to pay for? What skills will employers need five to 10 years from now?

Bergin, however, says overeducation is not a result of the financial crisis. Sure, the crisis didn’t help the situation, but it wasn’t the cause.



All of which leaves parents like me in a bind. Do I steer my children toward courses I think will lead to jobs (as if I have any way of knowing the needs of the labour market over the next 15 years) or encourage them to pursue their interests? I want my kids to eventually be able to pay their own bills, but I don’t want to destroy their mental health by pushing them into work that’ll make them miserable.

I have a dubious record in this regard myself, having resisted my hard-headed mother’s pressure to study either medicine or law. I wanted to study English literature, rarely a path to remunerated employment. The compromise was journalism, then seen as a pragmatic real-world trade. On my first day as a fledgling freelance, a crusty editor for the long-dead Irish Press welcomed me to the world of work: “Get out of this business.”

Later, when I studied literature at university part-time (at my own expense), I loved it far more than any work I’ve ever done in return for payment, and it remains a source of illumination and comfort.

I suppose my essential question is: what is a university education for? Ideally, I’d say it should open up your world, teach you to think for yourself, expose you to new ideas, develop your interests and bring you together with soulmates. But will that turn you into the kind of worker an employer is willing to pay?


First hurdle

Like every other parent, I keep hearing the tech industry offers well-paid jobs. But kids who might have a flair for that line of work can fall at the first hurdle. A friend of my son has a fierce love of computers, coding, and everything techie, but was turned off by every other subject in secondary school. Result? He didn’t get enough points in his Leaving to study computer science.

Supposedly our crisis is over, jobs are being created and Ireland is the “fastest-growing economy in the EU”, etc. Just last week ECB president Mario Draghi announced that “growth is gaining momentum”.

Still, I can’t help but despair when I read that even if the ECB’s quantitative easing programme delivers a cyclical recovery in 2017, the bank predicts that nearly one in 10 euro zone workers will still be jobless – and you can bet unemployment among young people will be far higher. Kathy Sheridan is on leave


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