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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C Farmers protest in Dublin, 1998
nine to five

5 charts that show how much Irish jobs have changed in less than one generation

There have been some big changes in the country over the past two decades.

IT WAS LESS than forty years ago that manufacturing overtook farming and fishing as Ireland’s biggest employer.

A few years later jobs in commerce, insurance and finance also leapfrogged those in the country’s long-dominant agriculture industry, which in the mid 1900s had accounted for over four in every 10 workers.

But you don’t need to look back that far to see major changes in how Irish people have earned a crust, with a huge shift from the farm and the factory into offices and customer service.

These 5 charts show the changes Irish jobs have gone through in less than one generation:

Chart1x2 CSO, CSO,

Back in 1994, about 490,000 people were working in the combined agriculture and industry sectors.

Those broad terms cover the bulk of blue-collar jobs, in trades like farming, manufacturing and construction.

Fast forward 20 years to the start of 2015 and the figure was 476,000, about 14,000 fewer workers, after only a small recovery from the swingeing job losses of the recession.

Over the same period the total employed in service roles, white-collar jobs like IT and finance, as well as all kinds of jobs in retail, hospitality, education and health, almost doubled to nearly 1.35 million.

90359438 Sasko Lazarov / Sasko Lazarov / /

The construction boom… and bust

Of all the industries to take a beating when the economy plunged into a hole, it was the construction sector that suffered most of all.

Chart3 CSO, CSO,

The number of people in construction jobs steadily grew as the Celtic Tiger boom became a bubble until the workforce peaked at over 132,000 by the end of 2006.

By early 2013, that figure had plunged to less than one-third the former total. Despite a slow recovery in the sector the total of 55,200 employed at the start of this year was still below size of the workforce in mid-1998.

jobs expo Sam Boal / Hundreds queue for a job expo at Croke Park in 2012 Sam Boal / /

The ‘Big Four’

The four biggest sectors for Irish jobs in 1998 were still the same as those early this year but with one obvious difference.

Chart4x3 CSO, CSO,

While the education, health and retail sectors experienced massive increases – despite the hangover of high unemployment from the recession, agriculture lost over 25,000 jobs.

That comes as it has become harder for small players in the industry to keep afloat as many farms were consolidated into larger, cheaper-to-run operations, although some of the lost jobs were being picked up in related sectors like food processing.

Glanbia Eamonn Farrell / Food processing and dairy giant Glanbia's new plant in Co. Kilkenny Eamonn Farrell / /

Food, drink and IT

While Ireland’s burgeoning technology sector rightfully gets a lot of publicity, jobs in the food-and-drink service industries have gone through just as big a boom.

Chart5x2 CSO, CSO,

Taken together with those working in accommodation to make up the bulk of the hospitality sector, this combined workforce now makes up a bigger cohort than farmers and the agriculture industry.

One benefit flagged for the hospitality and tourist trade was the jobs tended to be spread around the country, even to areas which struggled to attract industrial or high-tech businesses.

Tourists Sasko Lazarov / Sasko Lazarov / /

About the future

Forecasts from Solas’s research team early last year carry even more bad news for farm workers.

They predicted the sector would be the only one to go through a decline between 2012 and 2020, with the slide expected to continue despite the anticipated boost to dairy from the lifting of EU milk quotas.


Meanwhile construction employment was predicted to go through the biggest boom, although much of that increase would come because of the historic job lows during the post-bubble crash.

Otherwise it was mostly highly-skilled jobs that were expected to grow, in fields like law and business, and science, engineering and IT.

The trend was highlighted in the latest skills report from Solas for the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs, which found shortages were already cropping up in many areas despite Ireland’s unemployment rate hovering near 10%. tjb

This month, as part of’s ongoing startup and small and medium enterprise (SME) focus, we are looking at recruitment and building your career.

To view other stories from our collection, click here.

READ: Lost in translation? This Irish language-tech startup is here to help >

READ: Here are the industries that are hiring and firing right now >

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