Green Card not the ticket for IT sector

8 Aug 2007

Ireland’s new Green Card legislation could be restricting local IT companies’ access to skilled graduates from outside the EU.

Recently introduced Irish Government legislation covering work permits and visas for non-EU nationals could be having a damaging effect on the Irish ICT sector, it has emerged.

In February, the Irish Government introduced a new work permit regime that signalled a shift away from traditional work permits in favour of more targeted schemes focusing on high-value jobs and skills shortages.

This included Green Cards for highly skilled workers and an intra-company transfer option for workers in multinationals. The traditional work permit remained but with a more limited application than before.

One effect of the legislation has been to restrict Irish IT companies’ access to skilled graduates from outside the EU, it has been claimed.

“Candidates can apply for visas and work permits but the legislation that has come in is driven by the EU and it stipulates they have to go to the EU first. Consequently, it’s a long process and it’s very difficult to get non-EU workers in here,” says Michele Quinn, director of the Irish Software Association (ISA).

“Many visas are being refused unnecessarily. It’s hindering Irish companies’ development. There are bottlenecks in the existing legislation that are blocking a lot of the people we need to come in to work. That needs to be looked at urgently.”

According to a Dublin City University survey earlier this year, Ireland has a shortfall of about 14,000 skilled IT workers.

Just last month Dublin-headquartered IT consultancy Kainos announced it is opening a new office in Poland, citing lack of available skilled personnel in Ireland as a factor in the location decision.

Access to skilled foreign workers is vital to make up the labour deficit in the ICT sector. The changes to the work permit regime were intended to favour workers from within the EU following its expansion in 2004, but the needs of the IT sector cannot be met from within Europe.

The introduction of the Green Card scheme was designed to address this situation by attracting workers from outside the EU but only in specialised occupations, such as ICT.

So far this has not been the case, according to the ISA, which says the new laws are actually making it harder for companies to get qualified overseas staff to fill the positions.

“Several companies have been impacted because the renewal of work permits was affected by this legislation,” says Martin Byrne, business development manager with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) in Ireland.

TCS, which employs 85,000 people worldwide, is the ICT arm of a major Indian-headquartered conglomerate Tata Group.

“Even if you get a work permit, the lead time can be between 10 and 12 weeks. Even then the permit length may be shortened,” Byrne explained.

“The Government is tighter on the numbers and it is looking at various quotas before it will grant a permit. It has slowed down the process and certainly made it more difficult to bring people in, which hasn’t been a help at all.”

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has rebutted these claims, saying the current processing time for Green Card applications is less than three weeks.

It also stated the new Green Card scheme makes it easier for companies to bring non-European nationals to work in ICT skills shortage occupations, as it is specifically available for occupations with skills shortages (including ICT) in the €30,000 to €60,000 annual salary range, as well as for all occupations with an annual salary over €60,000.

To be eligible to apply for a Green Card a candidate’s job offer must be for two years or more. If it is a candidate’s first employment permit in Ireland then they are expected to remain with their employer for a minimum of 12 months.

This doesn’t always suit the needs of IT companies, who may require more flexibility for skilled foreign workers to work on shorter projects.

“We’re lobbying hard to get that legislation changed,” says Quinn. “It’s not just IT people but professionals for the IT industry that we urgently need. Companies need to be partnering with foreign firms to scale up; we need to work a lot closer with Indian companies, for example, but if we can’t get these Indian workers over here to work with the Irish teams then everybody loses out and we’re shooting our own industry in the foot.”

The department has said no further legislative change is required at this stage regarding the work permit regime.

It did say, however, that a number of priority areas were identified as requiring special consideration in terms of customer service and delivery. In that context “specific” staff resources were allocated to those areas in line with those priorities.

The department adds that it has recently allocated significant new resources into the employment permits area overall and a concerted action plan to further improve customer service is currently under way.

“It is critical we get the home-grown graduates but in the short term we need these foreign workers,” says Quinn. “At Government level we need to iron out the problems we’re having with work permits and visas for non-EU nationals, particularly Asian and Indian workers.”

By Niall Byrne