Ireland: Attracting the Highly-Qualified from Afar

By Alan McDonnell
Alan McDonnell
Alan McDonnell
October 2, 2013 Updated: October 2, 2013

A new report published by the independent Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) this month shows that despite the recession and high unemployment, Ireland is actively competing for highly-skilled non-European workers.

Irish government policy is to meet labour and skills needs from within the European Economic Area (EEA). However, the demand for certain niche skills exceeds available supply in sectors such as IT, engineering, finance, and healthcare.

Ireland has had to develop new policies to compete for key non-EEA workers, including initiatives to ease immigration-related barriers to employment, e.g. faster processing of employment permit applications. Facilitated access to permits by highly-skilled workers (for key occupations identified on the new Highly-Skilled Occupations list) is seen as a must, while the introduction of new programmes targeting non-EEA investors and entrepreneurs could bring a wealth of new businesses to Ireland. New initiatives to attract and retain certain non-EEA third-level students are also being planned.

Just over 64,300 non-EEA workers were employed in Ireland in 2012, representing 3.9 per cent of total persons employed, while the corresponding EU27 average is 4.1 per cent.

Are the policies working?

In terms of attracting highly-skilled workers, the ESRI maintains that Irish policies have been particularly effective. ESRI data show that almost half of non-EU nationals in employment were working in high-skilled occupations. Among the 20 EU states for which data are available, only the UK and Luxembourg showed higher proportions. Interestingly, almost 70 per cent of non-EU nationals at work in Ireland have high levels of education (degree level and above). This is the highest percentage among the 20 EU states for which data are available.

Using annual remuneration as a proxy for skill level, national data show a growing proportion of employment permits issued to workers earning 60,000 euro and over: up from 12 per cent in 2008 to 25 per cent in 2012.

However, the ESRI points out that a shortage of highly-skilled workers in the ICT, healthcare and financial services sectors persists. Specific skills mixes, such as foreign languages and business skills, are also in demand among employers in Ireland.

The ESRI has identified the absence of clearly defined family reunification and long-term residence schemes as possible barriers to attracting non-EEA nationals to Ireland.