By Kyran Fitzgerald
As employment in Ireland returns to levels last seen a decade ago, many businesses are discovering that an economic recovery has a downside.
However, conservative approaches in tax policy and blinkered thinking at board and executive levels has ensured skills-hungry firms are failing to tap into an obvious source of labour supply.
Many thousands of women, along with some males, have left the workforce for a number of years to care for a growing family or elderly relatives.
A recent study suggests that the country’s tax system is deterring many so-called second earners from either returning to the workforce or from taking on additional responsibilities when they do have paid work.
A growing number of experts both here and in Britain are also highlighting the difficulties faced by those returning following lengthy absences, including by many women who rose to senior positions in their company before quitting the workforce.
We all know about the cost to society stemming from the loss through emigration of people such as nurses, doctors, and engineers who have been trained up at great expense.
However, under our noses, highly trained and experienced people are in effect, being kept out of the workforce as a result of ageist attitudes and some of the worst offenders are in high-tech companies — often run and dominated by younger males — who view themselves and are viewed as trailblazers.
Labour market expert Karina Doorley has suggested that females, in particular, face significant barriers when seeking to return and she calls for a completion of the process of individualisation of the tax system which was begun back in 1999 by the then finance minister Charlie McCreevy.
At the time, the minister’s move to scrap the prevailing dual system of taxation was fiercely opposed by those concerned that single income households with home-worker mothers would be discriminated against.
In September 2000, the National Competitiveness Council backed Mr McCreevy and called for completion of the individualisation programme initiated in Budget 2000.
In its view, it was vital that married women aged over 35 be encouraged to rejoin the labour market. It called for improved skills training for this demographic.
However, political realities dictated that the individualisation programme remained incomplete and that Ireland ended up with in effect, a hybrid system of income taxation.
Ms Doorley set out her views in the 2018 Barrington Lecture. She pointed out that whereas 64% of Irish woman were at work, this compared with a rate of 77% for men.
Corresponding rates in the UK are 72% for women and 83% for men.
The Irish rates are very close to an EU average for men and women because participation rates of women are particularly low in much of southern Europe.
She sets out the historical context, pointing to the existence of a marriage bar across much of the public sector for women from 1932 which only ended in 1973 after we joined the EEC.
Ms Doorley highlighted a particular problem in the case of our tax system where basic rates are comparatively low, but marginal rates are quite high.
Eden Recruitment last year described the absence of mostly young educated homemakers from the workforce as “a second brain drain”.
Whereas 86% of women without children under 65 are at work, the figure falls to 57% for those with children aged three or under. But perhaps the real issue is what happens to women later on.
The Eden Recruitment writer suggested that “after an extended break from work, people can lose confidence in their abilities”.
In the UK, returnees have frequently faced problems trying to secure posts that match their skills and previous experience.
But even in the UK, women in the 35 to 55 year age group have an employment rate that is 20% lower than men.
A number of organisations have set out to improve matters.
A UK group called Women Returners aims to assist people in surmounting challenges, including what its UK managing director Julianne Miles describes as “the significant bias among employers against those who don’t have recent experience”.
She says: “They are perceived to have lost skills and the women themselves to have diminished confidence. They are seen as too risky.”
In reality, they offer more valuable experience, learned efficiency from multitasking and are more dependable compared with more footloose and fancy-free millennials.
Women Returners has expanded its activities in Ireland and is led here by Elaine Russell.
Another group, The Return Hub is geared to people seeking to re-enter the financial services sector, at a senior level. Returnees have to be realistic.
Many have returned initially in more junior roles before rising in the ranks. Some do not want to return to highly pressured positions and may well be seeking more creative and less than the top-paid jobs.
Writing recently, Ms Miles and Ms Russell point to continuing challenges: “We’ve heard too many stories of highly qualified women engineers and tech professionals being dismissed out of hand by recruitment agencies.”
All of which represents a big loss to a country which has, after all, invested heavily in their training, even before taking into account the personal commitment of the individuals involved.
It is surely time to start accessing the talent that is going to waste.