The pandemic has wrought havoc on lives, businesses and the economy. Despite the turmoil, the mood among recruiters is upbeat.

“This is nothing remotely like the last recession. It’s a very different animal,” says Mark O’Donnell, managing partner of Odgers Berndston in Ireland, an executive search specialist.

“Back then the phones stopped. They haven’t stopped at all and now we have the hope of a vaccine for 2021.”

Demand for key skills in technology, fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) and financial services, including Ireland’s burgeoning fintech sector, remains strong.

Despite recent job losses in the pillar banks – AIB has announced its intention to shed 1,500 staff – there is still sectoral demand for specialists in the areas of governance, risk and compliance. “These are always in demand as the regulatory burden becomes more onerous,” he explains.

On the FMCG side proven commercial people are much sought after. “Of course there is demand for finance, HR and marketing candidates but the real growth is in the commercial element, particularly someone who can bring international expertise to bear,” says O’Donnell.

People with commercial capabilities, who can combine experience of growing a business in international markets with strong product technology knowledge, are the Holy Grail, in recruitment terms.

While Ireland has a “good cadre” of such people working in growing sectors such as indigenous fintech, they are so well looked after that “the problem is, it’s very hard to move them,” he points out.

Regardless of sector organisations want candidates “who can bring that something extra to the role”, says Hilarie Geary of Executive Connections, an executive search business specialising in finance, banking, marketing and sales. “They want innovators and driven individuals who are constantly learning.”

Data is king. “Most of the roles we are fulfilling at senior level contain a need for our candidates to be well versed and possess demonstrable experience within attribution and general business analytics including business intelligence,” says Geary.

She expects to see demand for candidates with mergers and acquisitions experience, as well as ability in divesting, emerge in 2021, as businesses seek to consolidate.

Within banking, funds, asset management, private equity and capital markets there is growing demand for governance roles in relation to risk, compliance and legal.

“This is not surprising given the economic climate,” says Geary. “Roles such as scenario risk planning are dominant and C-Suites are seeking candidates who are dexterous at disseminating current and potential future business risk, be it operational, financial, reputational, or security.”

Almost two-thirds (65 per cent ) of her clients in these sectors have confirmed they will be hiring in 2021. “While others may have some lay-offs or a freeze on recruitment, this is still a very positive figure,” she says. The asset management and investment funds side of the industry is busy with projected growth predicted by all her client firms.

She has seen growing demand for business transformation skills and points to a recent survey of 244 HR directors in Ireland that found one of the most valuable capabilities required for 2021 is “the ability to drive change”.

Demand for digital and ecommerce skills remains strong too, both from multinational and indigenous firms, and particularly so for in retail.

Brexit will bring major challenges but being the only English speaking country in the EU will at least position Ireland well as a good location for overseas companies looking to run EMEA operations, or to enter the UK market.

It’s the kind of factor that led Fidelity Investments, a US business, to locate here, offering as it does a key time-zone bridge advantage between the US and Asia. Today the business employs 1,200 people here, in IT, operations and corporate shared services.

Another ground for optimism is how well companies of all sizes made the transition to remote working, including Fidelity.

“Working remotely did not have any material impact on the delivery of work,” says Sharon Walsh, its vice-president technology management

Lessons learned this year will not be unlearned. “The sudden shift to distributed work has provided us with an opportunity to reimagine everything about how we work, and how we support our employees,” says Walsh.

“While it is still too early to know how it will be different, it is now that we get the opportunity to retain the best parts of office life and maybe shed a few not so effective parts. The time for us to reimagine the future of work is now,” she says, acknowledging it as “an amazing, once in a career-lifetime opportunity”.

Sustainable approach

If we get it right, the benefits will be felt for generations.

“People will feel they have the option to live in places outside of cities, which is good for rural areas, and means less commuting and travel,” says Mary Connaughton, director of CIPD Ireland.

“It’s a much more sustainable approach that will solve a lot of our problems in terms of the availability and affordability of housing, and helping to combat homelessness, as well as opening up talent pools for employers,” she points out.

The downside in the meantime is the divergence between sectors, with some, such as life sciences med tech, pharma and technology generally “flying”, says Connaughton.

“Anyone who supplies technology that supports virtual processes is flying too. But retail, tourism and hospitality are really struggling, and it could be mid to late next year before some of those sectors can even begin to look forward to getting back to some level of normality,” she cautions.

“Unfortunately these are sectors that employ more women, more young people, and more low paid workers.”

Ireland has one strength, however, that other countries coping with post-pandemic recession may not.

“We are more used to coping with recession. In the UK they have to go back to the 1980s to get a sense of it because they didn’t have the same recession we had between 2011 and 2014,” says Connaughton.

“We in Ireland have a very live memory of how bleak that was, and yet we climbed out of it, so we know we can do this. Back then, job creation was our number one priority – and it paid off.”