The share of Irish graduates in employment that they are overqualified for has increased dramatically since 2005, according to new research conducted by The Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI). 

This phenomenon, known as underemployment, is affecting more than 30% of all 3rd-level graduates. These Underemployed graduates make up 14% of all employment in Ireland. 

According to the report ‘Education Indicators for Ireland’ 63.9% of secondary school graduates progressed to 3rd level in 2021. This is one of the highest rates of educational progression in Europe and is consistent with the general upward trend of 3rd-level graduates over the last few decades.  This increase in 3rd-level graduates has resulted in graduate numbers outpacing the high-end employment opportunities that exist in the Irish labour market. 

graduates in UCD
Photo by Gül Işık on

Whilst Ireland has the highest share of third-level graduates in overall employment, the likelihood that those graduates will find high-end employment in Ireland has fallen from 67% in 2005 to 54% in 2019. The majority of unemployed workers studied in business administration and law; arts and humanities; engineering and construction; and health and welfare. Almost three-quarters of the net job growth between 2008 and 2019 was filled by tertiary graduates under-using their qualifications. 

This high rate of underemployment affects more marginalised groups to a greater extent. 

Irish adults whose fathers attained low formal education (up to junior certificate), are now most likely out of 13 European countries studied to have a third-level qualification, but are simultaneously the least likely to be in high-end employment.  

Despite having the second highest share of women in higher education in Europe, Irish female tertiary graduates are more likely to be underemployed than their equally qualified male counterparts. Underemployment is a major issue for young graduates, with 35% of all young graduates in the workforce being underemployed. 

This high rate of underemployment also has a ‘dip down’ effect affecting less qualified workers. Jobs that would have traditionally been filled by them are instead filled by 3rd-level graduates.  As a result, the employment rate for those with the lowest bracket of formal education (up to Junior cert) has dropped from 47% in 2007 to only 20% in 2019, the lowest figure of the countries studied. 

According to the NERI economist Ciarán Nugent, as a result of the growing underemployment “ people with lower levels of formal education that used to fill those jobs are getting bumped down, getting bumped out of the labour market entirely almost”.

Many vital industries are struggling to get workers. According to the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland, more than 60 per cent of construction firms are experiencing difficulties recruiting machine operators and skilled tradespeople. 

Just over 40 per cent of construction firms say they cannot get enough labourers.  This demonstrates the growing mismatch of skills needed in the modern Irish economy and the skills that graduates can provide.

Many organisations and business groups have such called for an increased focus on promoting trades and apprenticeships as an alternative to third-level education.

Thomas Andrews – Reporter