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Peter O'Neill appointed Chamber President

IBM's Peter O'Neill Appointed President of
American Chamber of Commerce Ireland
Ireland continues to punch above its weight in attracting US investment but competitive progress being eroded by a lack of investment in education and training


Mr Peter O'Neill has been appointed President of the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland. Mr O'Neill is Managing Director of IBM Ireland, the global leader in advanced information technology, products, services and business consulting expertise.
Speaking at the launch of his Presidency, Mr O'Neill noted that the Ireland continues to punch above its weight in attracting inward investment from US companies. "With 148 investments secured in 2011 creating 13,000 jobs, the IDA has had a record year, and US companies continue to account for three quarters of all foreign direct investment into Ireland. The Chamber's own report Built to Last: The Irish US Economic Relationship, shows that US companies in Ireland have a total investment $190 billion, and account for 26% of Irish GDP. Amongst the highlights of the year were announcements by Twitter, Gilt Groupe, Google, Pfizer, VMWare, and PayPal to either establish new facilities in Ireland or expand operations here.

According to Mr O'Neill the continued strength of purpose shown by the Government in protecting Ireland's 12.5% rate of Corporation Tax is very important for the international investment community. "It is very heartening to see the unity of purpose shown by all involved in the efforts to retain the 12.5% rate of Corporation Tax. The Government, supported by the main opposition parties and a broad consensus of Irish society has successfully defended this key plank of our industrial policy and everyone who played a role in that deserves credit. There is no doubt that pressure will remain and the Government must be ever vigilant in protecting Ireland's interests in this regard", said Mr. O'Neill.

Mr. O'Neill said that continued uncertainty about the future of the Eurozone was impacting the confidence of the financial markets which in turn impacted on investment decisions by global corporations. "Ireland as an open economy is very dependent on global markets and much of our recovery to date has been export led. While the Government must exert its influence within Europe to ensure a stable Eurozone and the survival of the Euro, we need to focus on the issues within our control at home which can be used to support both a competitive indigenous sector and the multinational companies operating within Ireland".

"A competitive Tax regime is only one element of our offering to inward investors. Another key component to Ireland's proposition is its young, talented and flexible workforce. This is very much a trump card in relation to inward investment", he said. "We need to develop and retain talent as well as attract talent from overseas".

"Consistent investment in education by successive governments has ensured a plentiful supply of highly qualified workers with excellent technical capabilities who enjoy a well deserved reputation for flexibility and innovation. In the 2011 IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook, Ireland was ranked fourth in the world in terms of availability of skilled labour and openness to new ideas. This is the main reason why IBM in Ireland today is made up of a diverse workforce working across a wide range of differing businesses."

Mr O'Neill noted that while competitive improvements had been seen, many established companies continued to have high operating costs and were concerned about rising non-payroll employment costs. "There has been some progress in costs, there is no doubt about that but these mainly benefit new companies establishing in Ireland. We should not over-estimate our progress in this area, much still needs to be done", he said.

And there is a danger of this competitive progress being eroded by a lack of investment in education and training in future. "The scale of the fiscal problems facing the country at present cannot be denied", he said. "This is possibly the greatest fiscal crisis to have faced us since the foundation of the State. No sector or area can be immune from what are necessary cuts in expenditure but we have to prioritise some areas above others."

The warning signs are already in evidence according to Mr O'Neill. "As recently as last October we received the very unwelcome news that six of our seven universities had fallen in the world rankings as compiled by The Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Both TCD and UCD have dropped out of the top 100 while UCC and NUI Galway are no longer in the top 300. Dublin City University and DIT are now out of the top 400. This is a very worrying trend and the team which put together the rankings attributes it mainly to funding cuts.

"This cannot be allowed to continue", he added. "Already, some of our member firms in the key Digital, ICT, life sciences, and financial services areas are reporting difficulties in hiring suitable candidates. This is borne out by a recent study carried out by Forfas which showed that 55% of the demand for ICT professionals in Ireland is being met by inward migration. These companies are in Ireland because they are highly mobile and were attracted here by our unique combination of talent, tax, a pro-business environment and our position as the only English speaking member of the Eurozone, among other reasons. If they can't find suitable talent here Ireland will not be considered for future investments and, worse still, the existing operations may choose to move on to a competitor country where they can find qualified staff."

It is not just the third level sector which requires attention and investment. "Primary and second level education cannot be ignored", he pointed out. "The science and technology and business graduates at the future are formed in our primary and secondary schools. We need to see a much greater focus on these subjects and to integrate language skills into the broader curriculum in order to prepare the current generation of schoolchildren for the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow. The Minister for Education's willingness to reform the Junior and Leaving Certificates is very welcome.

"Lifelong learning is another vital issue", Mr O'Neill continued. "When you look at how much the environment has changed over the past decade with the advent of new technologies like social media, cloud computing, gene therapies and so on it would be a brave man who would try to predict the skills that will be required for the Ireland of 2022. That is why continued and ongoing investment in lifelong learning is so critically important for our future competitiveness."

Mr O'Neill said he looked forward to the publication of the Action Plan on Ireland's future high-level ICT Skills Needs which is currently being prepared jointly by the Department of Education and Skills, the HEA and the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs (Forfas). This Action Plan needs to be published without delay and it's recommendations acted upon if this vitally important industry is to continue to have confidence in Ireland as a location for future investment. We also need to maintain funding to Science Foundation Ireland and the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) if we are to develop the professional research and skills base required by the life sciences and other industry sectors where Ireland needs to command a leadership position in the future."

Mr. O'Neill said that the American Chamber is participating in the Department's Industry Engagement Forum, focussing on education reform, and is consulting with its members before making a submission to the forum next month.

Mr. O'Neill concluded saying; "The American Chamber of Commerce Ireland represents 600 US companies employing almost 100,000 people directly and many thousands more indirectly. US companies contribute hugely to the economy in terms of payroll, goods and services employed in their operations. Our focus as a chamber is to support the retention and continued growth of US investment in Ireland and despite the difficulties this country faces, I am confident that with the right actions Ireland can continue to attract US investment and benefit from the strong trade relationship which exists between Ireland and the United States."


About Peter O'Neill:

Peter O'Neill is Managing Director of IBM Ireland, a role he was appointed to in May 2010. He previously served as Director of IBM Sales and Distribution in Ireland. Having joined IBM in 1981, he has held leadership positions in sales, finance and general management in both Europe and the United States.

Mr. O'Neill also sits on the National Council of IBEC. He previously served as a Board Member of the Irish Research Council and of the Board of the Dublin City University Trust.

He holds a degree in Economics from UCD and is a Fellow of The Chartered Institute of Management Accountants.

Mr. O'Neill was appointed President of the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland in January 2012.