Opinion

Lurking within the minds of Laois people for some time is the question, “Why can’t I get a job closer to home?”

A Laois man who has lived outside the county for many years gives his take on why young people can only work in their native county if they get a job in the public service

E Dunne, Supply Chain expert and Masters of Business in Innovation & Strategic Business Enterprise

Reporter:

E Dunne, Supply Chain expert and Masters of Business in Innovation & Strategic Business Enterprise

The Laois Collection  by Kevin E Byrne Photography

The trend that seems to have happened within the county over the last few years is that we in Laois have allowed ourselves not to be just a commuter county, but now we have become commuting workforce.

Lurking within the minds of Laois people for some time is the question, “Why can’t I get a job closer to home?”

Like many Laois people, I have lived outside the county for many years. The 1st step to leaving the county was simple, third level education. Once your 3-4 years were completed, you didn’t return to Laois unless you were lucky enough to be a teacher, nurse, doctor, a county council employee or maybe later in life a guard or prison officer.

It was some of the lucky ones and brave ones I might add, that came back to the county to open their own business or managed to get a job locally. The trend that seems to have happened within the county over the last few years is that we have allowed ourselves not to be just a commuter county, but now we have become commuting workforce.

From the 1700’s when the town of Portlaoise was named Maryborough, Laois has been known as a Garrison county.

By that I mean that the majority of the people that arrived in Laois, were to take up jobs in Portlaoise prison, Portlaoise Hospital, Telecom Eireann, local schools, which as you may have noticed are all employment of the state and this trend has continued.

28% of Laois’ employment is based in the public sector, another 42% consists of those commuting to Dublin, Kilkenny, Offaly etc on a daily basis. Already 70% of Laois’ employment is accounted for in the last two sentences.  How have these figures been allowed to conspire?

It almost seems that the Government has looked at the first layer of the statistics and not delved deeper to understand more of what is going on behind the scenes.

It could be conceived that the Government saw that Laois is doing ok and is not in need of private investment like our neighbouring counties such as Offaly and Westmeath, who have had a surge of investment in the last 10 years. But why is this so?

In 2001 the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) was announced by TD Charlie McCreevy to decentralise government jobs and promote private investment to the BMW regions, which was the Border Midlands Western regions, which consisted of Westmeath and Offaly.

Due to nothing more than a blatant political decision, Laois was excluded from this spatial strategy.

The question is why was Laois ignored? Juno McEnroe (2013) of the Irish Examiner reported that the spatial strategy was nothing more than stroke politics and TD’s looking after their own county and not doing what was right for the country.  

It’s not a coincidence that Offaly was chosen over Laois as when the strategy was conceived, Laois was represented in the Dáil by two Offaly based TD’s from 2001 to 2006 in Tom Parlon and our “esteemed” Brian Cowen.

It’s not inconceivable to believe that there was a strong influence from these TD’s to look after their own county, because if it was me I would do the same. In that time these two counties have prospered whilst Laois has been left to fend for itself.  The NSS has since been found to be a disaster and incorrectly planned. In a recent study from Brian Hughes in 2015 from Dublin Institute of Technology, he explains why the NSS was indeed incorrectly planned.

Hughes comments that in the Midland’s Planning Region, the growth of Portlaoise during 2006-2011 – arising from its pivotal land-use and transportation interface - was equivalent to that of Athlone plus Tullamore plus Mullingar, the NSS-linked Midland’s Gateway. Significantly, Portlaoise’s growth was also greater than the individual increases for Limerick, Galway or Waterford cities.

Yet, that town’s obvious choice for growth selection was ignored by the NSS. By 2011 Portlaoise’s population was larger than Gateway-selected Sligo or the linked Gateway, Letterkenny.

Laois is now the biggest growing county outside of Dublin in the last 10 years as confirmed by the 2011 and 2016 national census. So why hasn’t there been any direct investment into the county?

The feeling from most of the people in Laois will be that it’s due to a lack of political will, or the lack of a strong political figure shouting and fighting for the county. The people of Laois are not exempt from the reason why we have been left behind. At the end of the day it was us who voted for of Tom Parlon and Brian Cowan to represent us.

If you are to be honest, who would you want shouting for you in government, an Offaly man or a Laois man?

There is no denying that politics brings jobs, but as the people of Laois feel that they have been continually left behind by the government, the county will need to fend for itself and believe in itself more if we feel we are not correctly represented. Success stories from Laois people need to be brought to light and there is no shortage of success stories within the county.

Noel Hooban and Seamus Delaney are just two Laois individuals who brought employment to the county, employing over 40 people with Internal Results who were recently purchased by an American company with the potential of future growth. Laois has a prized fashion designer in Heidi Higgins, whose name stretches across the globe and operates from a small office in the top square in Portlaoise.

Pauric Lodge, a respected and educated sports journalist for RTE who was assistant and researcher to the great Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh and will in no doubt be a chief reporter for the national station in the future. Not to mention Aussies rules star Zach Tuohy and Anna May McHugh Director of the National Ploughing Championships all huge success stories coming from our own little county.

I have travelled the world and met many people from many different nations, and I begun to notice that Ireland is the capital of the world for begrudging people. It is sad for me to say, that the capital of Ireland for begrudging is Laois. We don’t praise our own enough, not like Cork do with Roy Keane, or Dublin do with U2. Everyone may not like them, but when their name is mentioned you know where they are from.

There is no pride, there is no passion shown to the success stories we have, and I am pretty sure that of the Laois success stories that I have mentioned there will be some readers who will have thought or said out loud something derogatory about them.  

Without a team effort and a cohesiveness of the county, we will continue to be left behind. The only thing to do is to come together and work and promote and support one another.

So what does Laois need to do? In a time like this, its time to go back to the drawing board and look around at what are Laois’ core competence’s. What is it that the county can offer to employers more than any other county and is of vital importance to every business? The answer to that is competitive advantage. Of all the things that our government hasn’t given Laois, there is one that they have given Laois without even realising it.

The M7/M8 national road connects 3 of the biggest cities in Ireland. All three cities have an airport, and a port that imports and exports Ireland’s goods throughout the country. Due the strategic location Laois has, these cities are only 60-90 minutes away. The vast infrastructure that flows through the county can offer mass opportunity in the future in various industries but one in particular which is the warehousing and distribution industry.  

To prove that Laois can tap into this industry, it already has one of the biggest and busiest distribution centres in the country located in the heart of Portlaoise town in An Post. This is a model that the county needs to tap into and highlight that if the countries national Postal service is located in Laois, other distribution companies could set up within the county. Not only is the An Post Model proof, Laois has its own success story and warehouse and logistics specialist in Mícheal Kerry of Warehouse 2000 who has made a living from this industry and a successful one at that.

Since the fall out of the Brexit referendum, Irish businesses will need to be more competitive particularly those who export their goods to the UK.  Irish exporters could be 30 per cent less competitive in the British market. For start-ups, the Brexit will make it more difficult to start exporting to what has always been Ireland’s training ground and test bed for new ventures.

A total of 43 per cent of exports from Irish indigenous businesses are destined for Britain, compared with 12 per cent of exports from foreign owned companies. How can Laois offer a competitive advantage to these firms is very simple? Industrial rental rates in Dublin are currently at a record high of €80 per square meter, where in Laois right now the biggest rate currently stands at €40 per square meter a saving of 50%.  

This would not take into account the reality that wages would be considerably less in Laois than in Dublin, Limerick, and Cork adding to the argument that Laois could offer a competitive advantage. Firms need to find ways of lowering their costs to stay competitive against their rivals. If their supply chain operations costs are considerably less than their rivals, and businesses can still deliver their product to their customers without affecting customer service levels, this would enable them to spend more money on marketing, R&D to keep them ahead of their competitors.

There is no shortage of land availability, recently a 109 acre area of land that was zoned specifically for the warehouse and distribution was put up for sale for a mere €2.2 million compared to land prices in Dublin, this would be considered a bargain. It may be argued that Laois may not have the XXL warehouses that are required, so in order to build a reputation that Laois is an ideal location for the warehousing and distribution industry it may need to start small and build up..

The ideal market for Laois to target would be the online market that requires a small but effective warehouse and distribution operations. The online market in Ireland is now considered a huge and still untapped market. In a recent study carried out by Indecon on behalf of the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, it revealed that Irish people spend around €850,000 online every hour of every day, which is a 20% increase since 2012. Online consumer spending is now the largest single contributor to the digital economy.

The report also revealed that 88% of Irish Consumers research products online before buying; compared to 79% across the EU. Currently, 68,000 jobs are directly linked to digital with 48,000 indirectly supported by it. Should start-up companies or Irish indigenous firms that are involved in online purchasing require warehousing and distribution and are looking to keep their costs such as wages and rent low there is no better location than Laois.

Due to its location, its vast infrastructure and ease to transport goods around the country in a short space of time Laois’ location is perfect. If An Post in Laois can sort and distribute a letter from Kerry to Donegal in less than 24 hours, its not inconceivable that another company can’t follow suit.

How this would be achieved, is at present unknown but the county must try. If it would mean hiring a consultant to help us attract these businesses then so be it, it must be done. The art of any good business is being a good middleman and all Laois needs right now is a good middleman. It’s important for the county to believe in itself and have confidence in its ability. Laois has 24% of its population attending 3rd level education. That is higher than the neighbouring county of Offaly, who were included in the NSS.

The workforce is there, the problem is that they are living in other counties, commuting to surrounding counties. These people are our talent, our future success stories, and the ones who could make Laois the future and make a difference.

To allow them to be on loan to other counties to enable future growth there is immoral. In order to help them make a difference the county needs to get them back. The warehousing and distribution industry could be the start. Every firm needs accountants, auditors, marketing and sales people. I’m sure that of the professions I’ve mentioned, you’ve already got at least one person from Laois with the experience and qualifications to do the job.

Laois must not be afraid to try. To try and fail, is more of a success story than those who do nothing.  For years I was afraid to try, afraid of the failure that would come with it.

Now thanks to the success stories like Seamus Delaney and Noel Hooban, Anna May McHugh, Zach Touhy, Heidi Higgins, and Pauric Lodge, these people have been to me, and should be an influence to us all.  Laois is now a county of its own constituency with a growing population that is bigger than Offaly and Westmeath that needs private investment. The power for the first time is in the people’s own hands. The opportunity is now. William Ernest Henley wrote,

“It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul”

Laois must not be afraid, must not be afraid the of the consequences. We are the masters of our fate. We are the captains of our soul.