Global Recruiter caught up with World Employment Confederation member National Recruitment Federation (NRF), Ireland, and spoke with CEO Geraldine King about opportunities appearing.

What are the main challenges and opportunities currently facing the labour market in Ireland?

If you had asked me that question at the start of 2020 my answer would have been very different than today.  Back then, Ireland was enjoying virtual full employment, with an unemployment rate of just 4.7%. The greatest challenge we faced was talent shortages in the buoyant IT and healthcare sectors as demand outstripped supply.

Fast forward to today and the picture is quite different.  The unemployment rate is over 16%, and while this is down from the 28% it reached at the height of the Covid-19 crisis, it is still higher than during the 2008 economic crisis.

Some areas of the economy are now tentatively opening up and adjusting to a new normal, however many sectors, such as hospitality, remain closed.  The challenge for the employment and recruitment sector is to get people back to work and provide platforms that enable workers to transition into new jobs and learn new skills along the way.

  1. How do you see the industry’s role evolving in both the short and longer term? What is the outlook for flexible staffing?

Arguably the role of our sector has never been so crucial.  We have the chance to take a lead in offering guidance and advice to governments, companies and workers, partnering with them in managing a broad range of issues – from recruiting, training and upskilling through to implementing new health and safety measures in the workplace.

Collaboration is key.  Our sector has broad experience in these areas and can help provide solutions to support the recovery. We can demonstrate how best to connect people with work, to identify transferrable skill sets, to provide training and to transition people from those sector’s that are struggling to those that need more staff. The opportunities are out there but we need to be smart and to work fast in equipping people with new skills. I see our sector as at the coalface and the next six months will be critical.  In many ways this is our opportunity to showcase the role that the industry can play in partnering with organisations and helping them to move forward.

At the height of the pandemic our sector worked to support both companies and workers.  While much of the retail sector was locked down, food retailing was booming and needed to staff-up in with delivery drivers, in-store and in logistics.  Similarly, in the healthcare sector, we saw strong demand and were able to transition workers from those sectors of the economy that were closed – such as restaurants, catering and entertainment.

  1. What actions are you taking to support your members, their client companies and workers to lead in the new normal?

We are working closely with our members and their clients in providing a range of support services to help them in navigating the crisis:

  • Just a few weeks into lockdown NRF launched a ‘Keep Ireland Working’ campaign with a platform to which candidates could sign up in order to be connected with participating agencies. This was quite an innovative departure for our organisation.
  • We also set up a Covid-19 platform on our website giving members access to a range of experts – from lawyers and policymakers through to health and safety practitioners.
  • Members receive monthly updates flagging the top 10 things that they should be aware of, using simple language that they can understand.
  • As parts of the economy began to open, so we created a ‘Returning safely to work’ taskforce and brought on-board a host of experts to help us provide members with the best advice in meeting the additional requirements of today’s workplace. We are also mindful of the importance of remote working safely and in both these areas we have had strong guidance and direction from our global body, World Employment Confederation (WEC).

Our services are now completely virtual and we hold regular member events and seminars with speakers giving advice on topics from sales and retraining, through to understanding government policy.

  1. WEC is promoting social innovation as a way to accommodate new challenges. What does that mean in your market and how has that changed with the Covid-19 crisis?

Social innovation has moved to a whole new level now as we strive to keep our country working. There is the opportunity to provide a host of new platforms for positioning roles into which people can transition.

Remote working is a big game changer.  Whereas pre-Covid it was a ‘nice to have’ and for the few, now we have had to make it work.  It has brought challenges but also many benefits. We already see people less stressed and with more balance in their lives. Many client companies have ruled out any return to the office before 2021.  Many in our industry are now operating a hybrid system alternating three days in the office and two days at home.  Within NRF we work in two teams so that we remain in our bubbles and have the chance to clean the office fully in between each working day.

I also believe that the trend towards remote working offers a real boost for diversity within the labour market.  It breaks down barriers and affords labour market access to a whole cohort of people who would previously have been excluded.  I am determined that some good should come from this pandemic and we at NRF will be looking to support greater diversity and drive ongoing social innovation in the months and years ahead.

  1. How prepared is your market for the post-Covid world of work?

We have had to learn fast over the past six months and set in place a host of new services.  We are now in good shape and the Irish Government has done a really good job and been swift to recognise the need for collaboration and consultation among experts from all areas – from employers and recruitment specialists to the hygiene sector.  We are having to redesign the workplace from scratch and to bring in expertise that we never thought we would need.

One area that we are particularly proud of is the introduction of an Honours Degree in Recruitment Practice.  This is the world’s first such professional qualification in our sector and the first students will begin their three-year degree course this autumn at the National College of Ireland.

The ground-breaking initiative has really put our industry on the map as a serious and important profession.  The Irish Government helped us to launch it and the minister uses our industry as a poster child for developing a rigorous academic framework for professional services.  We hope that it will become a blueprint that will be copied around the world.

It is still early days on the road to recovery, but we do see pockets of encouragement in some sectors.  I like to think that we have built a solid relationship with government and partners around the country and that despite the hardships and heartaches that the Covid-19 crisis has inflicted on our communities, it has made people sit up and take notice and recognise the private employment industry as a serious support sector and a vital cog in our economy.

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