Photo by Lois Kapila

The average earnings in the Irish information and communications technology (ICT) and financial sectors have been rising since 2009.

These two sectors are currently at the top of the pay scale, with mean annual wages close to €50,000. That is significantly higher than the national average of just below €35,000 per year. It is also approximately three times more than in accommodation and food services.

The number of people employed in these two sectors was not dramatically affected by the recession. It fell slightly in 2009, but has been rising since, growth that is linked to the development of Dublin’s Silicon Docks, and the expansion of multinational online companies.

At the end of 2016, there were nearly 90,000 people working in ICT and around 100,000 in the financial sector. These two combined therefore account for nearly 10 percent of overall employment.

For many years, both sectors have provided well-paid and secure employment with clear career progression.

But while many jobs in ICT and finance can definitely be described as good, there are emerging trends suggesting that working conditions in these sectors are becoming polarised.

For a variety of reasons, these cannot be captured through a basic statistical analysis of the Quarterly National Survey.

Firstly, the annual wages are average and do not differentiate between experienced workers and new entrants. Furthermore, some of the terminology used in relation to the occupational categories can be misleading.

In the Working Conditions in Ireland Project, recently completed by the Dublin-based think tank TASC, where I work, we found evidence of changes in the nature of some jobs in these two sectors.

As the study was mainly qualitative, we were able to uncover issues hidden behind official statistics: new entrants had a different relationship with their employers, and there has been a growth in customer-service and back-office jobs.

Most of our participants agreed that there are opportunities for those with adequate skills and qualifications. Entry-level jobs, however, are often fixed-term and low-paid.

Some of the young professionals we interviewed said they actually expected to earn very little, and do internships in order to get into these sectors. Nevertheless, for them, it was a sacrifice that could potentially lead to a secure and well-paid job.

The situation can be different for those working in customer-service and back-office jobs. We don’t know exactly how many of those there are in Ireland. This is because the job titles can be ambiguous.

An employee may be called a “technical advisor”, a “technical specialist”, or a “financial officer”. These positions are classified at the higher end of the occupational structure, usually as a “professional” or an “associate professional and technical”.

The reality, however, is somewhat different. Back-office jobs mainly involve routine administrative duties, including data-entry or security checks for online accounts.

Customer-service employees are mainly based in a call-centre environment. They should be called “administrative and secretarial” or “sales and customer service”, in line with categories used by the Central Statistics Office.

Such work does not require specific qualifications or advanced technical skills. Despite their white-collar nature, the jobs can also be quite mundane, with a focus on soft skills and interpersonal relations. This is especially the case for those in customer service.

So-called “people skills” are especially important if a client who rings already has a problem: a broken phone, a forgotten password, or an issue with their bank account. The individual at the other end always needs to smile down the line.

Managerial control in such an environment can also be tight, with recorded calls. Customers provide feedback through online surveys. Software counts how many minutes are spent with each client. Targets are high and the breaks are limited.

In some cases, workers don’t even get a seat and desk in the office. At least two of the multinational companies based in Ireland have started to have customer-service employees work from their homes.

It is difficult to establish what proportion of customer service is now provided by these workers, but there is evidence that the numbers are growing.

Traditionally, the choice to work from home has been perceived as a positive option, giving people more flexibility. In this case, it seems that the company decides, as employees aren’t invited into the office.

Such employees are also not allowed to disclose to the customers that they work at home, as the company’s image could suffer. Nevertheless, constantly online during their shifts, they are subject to the same tight supervision as those based in a traditional call-centre environment.

Generally speaking, salaries for these jobs also tend to be low, usually below the national average. In addition, contracts tend to be given on a temporary basis.

In both sectors, back-office and customer-service employment offer limited career progression opportunities. These workplaces, especially call centres, have a rather flat structure. An individual can rise a few ranks, but the wage increases are usually small.

There are of course, good jobs for those who wish to work in ICT and finance. Both sectors offer rewarding salaries and satisfying working conditions in the areas with high demand for skills.

However, we need to be clear about the overall nature of work in these two sectors. Our research shows a possible growth of employment at the lower end of the occupational scale, where workers do not have same conditions, salaries, and opportunities.

While this change is difficult to quantify, the quality of these jobs should be further monitored.

Alicja Bobek works as a researcher at TASC. She has a PhD in Sociology from Trinity College Dublin

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