Business news

Business leaders call on new Executive to urgently address skills gap

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13th Feb 2024

Business leaders from across the sectors in Northern Ireland have called on the newly formed Executive to urgently address the current skills gap as well as challenges posed by the current Apprenticeship Levy model.


Senior executives gathered for a roundtable event, organised by Workplus and sponsored by NIE Networks, to address solutions to the current skills challenges and NI-specific barriers posed by the Apprenticeship Levy.


In December 2023, DfE published the Employer Skills Survey 2022 which highlighted the rise of skills shortage vacancies to 35% of all vacancies (from 22% in 2019).


The agenda of the roundtable event, which was held at The Mac in Belfast, included identifying key skills requirements, outline solutions to the current skills challenge, and the Apprenticeship Levy and how it is applied to Northern Ireland.


Richard Kirk, CEO of Workplus, said: “Skills are a key driver of productivity and growth, and help us to meet societal and economic challenges. They provide a ladder of opportunity and ensure jobs and prosperity. We’ve seen skills shortages rise from one fifth to over one third in just a few years – a deeply concerning trend which has serious implications for economy and society.


“There are two main components to the current skills gap. Firstly, employers’ needs are getting more sophisticated and, secondly – and crucially – there is clear disconnect in the current system – disconnect between employers’ requirements and the skills, qualifications and experience that people have.”


“The answer to this is not simply funding, the solution involves change, collaboration and agility to respond. We need bridging programmes like apprenticeships and employment academies which can help bridge the gap between economy’s needs and skills of our people.”


The event was sponsored by NIE Networks which is one of Northern Ireland’s largest employers of apprentices and has won numerous awards for its apprenticeship programmes.


Gordon Parkes, who is Executive Director of People & Culture at NIE Networks and has over 40 years’ experience in the HR sector, said: “This roundtable set out to focus on solutions to the current skills shortages. We are confident the skills challenges can be addressed through collaboration with business, government and education. As employers, we must be part of reducing barriers to employment and realise the deep value of bridging programmes such as apprenticeships, which allow people to come as they are and get skilled and qualified on the job.


“However, this is not simply a challenge for employers. The onus is also on the newly formed Northern Ireland Executive to address the very real barriers that exist for employers in Northern Ireland, including the need to make radical changes to the Apprenticeship Levy. We want to see a skills fund that tangibly supports employers, which in turn will benefit society as a whole.”


The roundtable event took place during Northern Ireland Apprenticeship Week, which is in place to highlight the benefits of apprenticeships.