I am delighted to take on the role of NI Chamber President and look forward to working with Chief Executive Ann McGregor, the Board, Council and Executive team over the next 12 months.
I am particularly pleased to take up the position as a representative from a family business. Family-ownership is more important in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK, accounting for a huge proportion of our economy. The growth of this economy is dependent on more family owned and indigenous business like ours, scaling-up and acting upon their export potential. NI Chamber is well placed to help all such companies with practical support and advice and as President, I would encourage owners and managers to seek it out.
Our family business, Henry Group operates within construction – the third largest sector in Northern Ireland. Having spent my entire career working within it, I can say with absolute certainty that it is a world-class industry, transforming landscapes, homes and standards of living and working across the UK, Ireland and indeed the world. This is a story which I know is replicated in many sectors across the province.
However, despite so many local success stories, these remain challenging times across all sectors and I take up the position of President during a period of significant uncertainty for business and the economy.
Like so many, our own construction industry has faced tough economic conditions in recent years, exacerbated by Westminster’s exhausting, political debates and the repercussions of a three year hiatus at Stormont. However, like much of the public, the business community also wants to move on. We want to see progress from the UK government in terms of trade negotiations and business conditions and we want to see the restored Stormont Executive working collaboratively with each other and business leaders to tackle a long list of issues.
Northern Ireland is currently experiencing an acute shortage of skilled workers. With 8 in 10 NI Chamber members currently finding it hard to fill vacancies, addressing the skills shortage must be a key focus for the business community and legislators. All members – agri foods to IT and manufacturing – have a big demand for skills and we are feeling the gaps in our businesses. At a time of critical recruitment shortages, an Immigration Bill that allows businesses to recruit staff at all skill levels cannot be delivered soon enough. As the Department for the Economy commences work on a new skills strategy, NI Chamber will aim to ensure that the voice of its 1,200 members, who represent over 104,000 employees, is at the centre of this process. During my term as the organisation’s President, this will be a key focus.
Other important issues near the top of this long list include the need for significant investment in physical and digital infrastructure, addressing historically low levels of productivity and helping business live up to its responsibility to tackle the climate emergency.
While it would be easy to say that none of these will be achieved overnight, the reality is, if we are to boost our stagnant economy, swift action is needed across the board.