Mon 9th Dec 2013
Dec 13: Learning to Value the Vocational Path
Recent projections about economic growth next year up to two per cent by EY and PWC were extremely encouraging. They reinforced earlier predictions about economic recovery and improvements in business confidence and employment by the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, optimistic predictions which Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne factored into his understandably cautious Autumn Statement on Thursday that has been prudently shaped to ensure a sustainable recovery.
While Britain appears to be growing faster than most European economies in particular, Northern Ireland continues to lag behind many other UK regions. Companies here are still finding it difficult to access funds for faster growth especially in exports, productivity and skill gaps have still to be bridged. The Department of Employment and Learning is currently focusing on initiatives to address skills through imaginative initiatives, for instance, to promote work-based learning schemes. Worryingly a report by the Engineering UK industry body found that the number of under 19s taking advanced engineering apprenticeships fell by 12 per cent in 2011-12 and a provisional eight per cent last year.
What is required fundamentally to change the perception of vocational education. It must be seen and promoted as a genuine alternative to the academic route. There are some excellent examples of business leaders here who have reached the top through the apprenticeship route.
There’s much that we could learn, for example, from the German approach to apprentices that encourages employers to move much closer to secondary schools. In Germany there is complete acceptance that significant investment by the employer, as well as the state, in young people will produce substantial benefits for the economy.
This progressive approach raises the profile of industry in the schools and encourages young people to seek industrial careers that combine workplace experience with access to education towards relevant qualifications. German companies, moreover, have a more enlightened attitude to adult apprenticeships.
As we endeavour to improve productivity significantly, adult apprenticeships, in particular, offer an excellent opportunity to develop workplace centric skills – not at the expense of supporting young people, but in addition to. Employers also ought to have much greater influence on the design and delivery of apprenticeship scheme.
Increasing access to funds for growth continues to be one of the most important issues for firms taking part in our monthly economic surveys. Government enhanced support for the Business Bank appears to have little real impact here.
The Chancellor has pushed the bank’s resources beyond the £1 billion fund for small and medium sized companies…without much response probably because confidence appears weak among these businesses. Developing recovery together with the curb on business rates and energy prices may well strengthen among companies and local banks.
Smaller companies, furthermore, may not be seeking finance because key markets such as Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland and other parts of Europe are still perceived as being ‘difficult’ and more competitive than ever before. Eurozone markets certainly continue to be difficult….and will continue to be so in the short-term.
The Chamber continues to work with our members from the local banks on measures that will help many more smaller companies to look abroad for the opportunities that do exist. We draw tremendous encouragement from the recent successes of smaller companies such as Kettyle Irish Foods, Medizar, and Paradox Omega in the Gulf, as well as Antrim Hills Spring Water in China and Fast Engineering in South East Asia.