Offaly needs Tullamore to provide greater employment
6th November 2018
It may surprise some to read that there are almost one and a half jobs in Tullamore for every working-age person living in the town.
Does this mean that everything is rosy in the garden, and we have all the jobs we need? No. It means that much of Offaly and parts of surrounding counties rely on Tullamore as an employment hub. The same is true of Athlone, Mullingar and Portlaoise.
Despite Tullamore being an employment hub, the morning trains still depart Tullamore packed with skilled workers heading for Dublin. Parts of west and north Offaly are amongst Ireland’s most economically-deprived areas. In short, Offaly needs Tullamore to provide much greater employment opportunities than it already does.
It’s to the credit of the authors of the Ireland 2040 plan that the regional importance of Tullamore is recognised and widely cited. Despite a bit of local jealousy over Athlone being awarded special growth status in the plan, Tullamore is still earmarked as a “Key Growth Settlement”.
It seems likely at this stage that 40% population growth will be prescribed for Tullamore which the Chamber lobbied for assiduously. However, all plans that have been viewed by Tullamore Chamber thus far are extremely light on the specifics of how this growth will be achieved.
Throughout human history, people have migrated from one place to another in search of greater economic opportunity. In April 1848, the population of a sleepy backwater called San Francisco, California was 850. Then gold was discovered, and the population grew to 25,000 by December 1849. An extreme example to illustrate the point.
If not for increased local employment opportunities, why would the population of Tullamore grow by 40%? The truth is this; it won’t. As a basic rule, 40% population growth requires slightly more than 40% employment growth nearby. Otherwise, what is the point of moving to the new location?
However, the basic rule ignores a couple of very specific points in relation to Tullamore’s unique set of circumstances. Firstly, Tullamore’s hinterland is bottom of the league for employment. Bottom of the league for higher level education. Bottom of the league for health and wellbeing. Offaly needs Tullamore to be a very strong employment location.
Secondly, since the publication of Ireland 2040, we have had announcements from Sennheiser and Bord na Móna of hundreds of redundancies. Make no mistake; this is devastating news. It is no coincidence either that the underlying reason for both announcements is technological change. These jobs will not be replaced like-for-like.
Here are some uncomfortable truths. The Midlands is the region with the fewest IDA-supported jobs. It’s not even close. We have roughly 4,000 “IDA jobs” in the Midlands. The next-worst region is the South East. It has roughly 12,000.
As well as being way behind other regions on existing employment, the Midlands is also behind on growth, so the gap is widening. The Region is bottom of the league for higher level educational attainment, but not so far behind statistically as to justify the massive gap in foreign direct investment. If anyone thinks that Athlone’s recent wins are the biggest challenge facing Tullamore, they need to widen their frame of reference and see what is really going on. The challenges for Tullamore are a combination of technological change and poor follow-through from state agencies leading to missed targets on already unambitious, unimaginative, misdirected and parochial policy.
The status quo is not working for the Midlands in general. Without serious, targeted intervention to stimulate transformative job creation here, the situation will likely deteriorate. For Tullamore to remain relevant and play its part in the regional and national context, the following specific things need to happen.
- We need a replacement Action Plan for Jobs (Midlands Region), which is serious in seeking to provide the employment which will sustain the Region’s population through to 2040.
- We need advance facilities, badly. Tullamore has very little available commercial/industrial space of marketable standard. There are no tax incentives to stimulate private sector investment in developing facilities, so Tullamore Chamber has formally requested that Offaly County Council/IDA identify a 100-acre site in public ownership in Tullamore for development as a fully serviced commercial/industrial park, with advance buildings. We are disappointed this has not happened already because it is of utmost importance.
- We need to focus on our strengths. We have strong med-tech, engineering and food/beverage clusters, all of which have scope for further development. Our biggest asset is Tullamore Hospital, which is on a development pathway to University Hospital status and is the designated regional trauma centre with responsibility for a population of more than 400,000. This presents direct and secondary employment opportunities.
- We need enhanced transportation infrastructure within the region. Like the hospital, industrial employers draw talent from a wide area, not just the town. We need the N80 upgraded all the way to Carlow and the N52 from Birr to Nenagh. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as a town of 15,000 people, and start selling ourselves as key growth settlement in a well-integrated region of 400,000.
- We need targeted help with re-skilling mature workers for the new economy. Existing industries will continue to fall away, and new ones will emerge quicker than ever before. We need help from Government agencies to move our collective skills sets ahead of the development curve. The Midlands needs to be designated as a disadvantaged area in need of extra help in this regard.
Tullamore Chamber calls on all elected representatives to recognise the challenges and opportunities facing the region, and to act in the region’s best interests. We have a picture of what Ireland ought to look like in 2040 and it looks okay; we now need to step up the pressure to ensure the necessary actions are taken for the Midlands and Tullamore to remain an integral part of that picture, and not just a black hole in the middle of it.