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Speech by An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar T.D. Future Jobs Summit

Ministers, ladies and gentlemen, good morning.

I'm pleased to be here to open our Future Jobs Summit.

Thank you Richard for acting as moderator today.

I’d also like to welcome our speakers, Luiz de Mello of the OECD, and Julie Spillane from Accenture.
It’s good to see a broad range of stakeholders here today representing different strands of Irish society.

Today is an important milestone in planning for Ireland’s economy of the future - and I’d like to thank you for helping us reach it.

Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum believes we are on the brink of a Fourth Industrial Revolution – one that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to each other.

As one of the most globalised economies in the world, Ireland will be impacted more than most by these forces of change.

In the same way that the invention of the spinning jenny and mechanised textile production changed the world of work forever - automation, the internet of things, advanced robotics, artificial intelligence and big data will transform our century.

Today’s school children will be doing jobs that don’t currently exist.

At the same time our planet is under pressure from climate change. For humanity to survive, we must decarbonise our economies, changing how we produce, consume and live our lives.

New forms of energy, transport and food production will transform industries, companies and jobs.
History - and economics - tells us that new business opportunities and jobs will replace those lost, but the transition can be difficult.

The people – towns - cities - countries - that will benefit from automation or big data are not necessarily those that are doing well today. History is littered with examples of regions that thrived economically at one time or another, but were complacent, assumed their competitive advantage would last forever, and fell into decline.

We can see across the western world the consequences of that failure. People and places that feel forgotten left out and who are seduced by populism and the politics of the easy answer and someone to blame or hate. We know where that ends.

Today, Ireland is doing well. There are now almost 2.3 million people at work, more than at any point in our history. Unemployment has fallen to 5.5 per cent, and 360,000 new jobs have been created since 2012, most of them outside of Dublin. We should be proud of this progress.

But the advantages we enjoy now won’t last forever. So, now we must prepare now for the economic challenges of tomorrow, we too could easily fall backward.

As we prepare for these big changes we must focus on the micro as well as the macro. For example, we know that connected and autonomous vehicles are the future of driving and of haulage. That future is still a good while off, but it’s getting closer.

Some day in the near future, transporting goods in trucks will not require a person in the cab. From the macro-economic viewpoint, that’s a positive. But for the driver, less so.

It’s no good telling a man or a woman, who has driven a truck for the past thirty years, that there are opportunities elsewhere in the economy in something called ‘big data’. We have to prepare them earlier in their lives for that change, training them for opportunities in logistics or in the broader economy, embedding the idea of life long learning.

Providing learning opportunities for the people whose jobs are most at risk of automation means that when those changes come they can take advantage of them and move onto better employment.
Future Jobs is about positioning us now to embrace these big changes. To ensure that we don’t become complacent.

It is also about facing-up to some of the structural weaknesses in the Irish economy.

We know the economy is performing strongly.

But our very success is putting pressure on parts of the economy, and most notably on housing, on our transport infrastructure and there are recruitment challenges now across all sectors.

This requires careful management and choices. We must avoid repeating the mistakes of the past by chasing unsustainable levels of expansion in all sectors of the economy.

There are also big external risks. International developments in trade and tax have the potential to damage our economy.

Brexit is a major risk for our economy, although the actual outcome is still unknown. However, while we are rightly devoting much of our time and energy to the Brexit negotiations, the rest of the world is moving on – and we can’t afford to be left behind.

While Ireland ranks relatively well for productivity and international competitiveness, high productivity figures mask areas of underperformance.

Productivity is not a term to grab the imagination, it is crucially important. To paraphrase Paul Krugman, when it comes to economic growth: ‘it may not be everything but it is almost everything.’

Increasing productivity is the only long-term sustainable way of increasing the standard of living for our people. We need to think about more than gross job creation, and focus on productive, quality jobs.

We also need more flexible workplaces. To retain or attract highly qualified or specialised talent into the future, workplaces will have to be more family friendly. A more skilled workforce will have greater employment choices and will choose to work in an environment that does not compete against family time. Ireland has the potential to stand out in this regard. I am interested to hear from businesses today as to their views and company policies are in this regard.

These are issues that are common across the country, in rural and urban areas. The shortage of skilled labour is an issue everywhere. Skills gaps and demand are across many sectors of the Irish economy. So we need to get this right.

In recent years we have seen a growing productivity gap between high-performing ‘frontier’ firms, which are often foreign-owned, and the rest of the economy.

Ireland’s trade is also concentrated in a relatively narrow range of markets and sectors, and such concentration exacerbates risks.

So, while Foreign Direct Investment will continue to the cornerstone of Irish enterprise policy, we need to more deeply embed this sector in our wider economy, and improve productivity performance across other companies. We need more home grown companies growing jobs.

As we get close to full employment, and plan for an aging population in the decades ahead, we also need to increase participation rates, particularly among women and among older people and among many people with disabilities.

The good news is that we rise to these challenges from a position of strength.

Through Project Ireland 2040, we are investing heavily in all aspects of infrastructure, catching-up with a lack of investment during the economic crisis, and investing in all parts of our country.

Project Ireland 2040 will improve our capacity for growth and job creation, including through investment in education, research and the new Disruptive Technologies and Climate Action Funds.

The Future Jobs Programme complements Project Ireland 2040. It ensures that we take advantage of this opportunity to create sustainable and productive jobs for the years ahead.

Future Jobs sets out longer term ambitions for the future of the economy, taking account of the challenges facing us, then translating these into a small number of impactful and deliverable actions which can be taken on an annual basis, starting in 2019.

There will be accountability for delivery of these actions – overseen personally by me and by my Department.

It will be organised around five themes:

· Increasing Productivity, especially among Irish SMEs;
· Skills and Talent;
· Innovation and technology;
· The Low Carbon Economy; and
· Increasing Participation in the Labour Market.

Minister Humphreys will speak about these themes in more detail later on, and six Ministers will be here today to hear your priorities.

The next few decades will involve great change and opportunity. If Ireland is to adapt to and continue to thrive, we must start preparing now for tomorrow’s economy.

Today’s deliberations and breakout sessions are an opportunity to imagine the future and then start preparing for it.

I look forward to hearing your ideas.

Thank you.