Paul Murnaghan, President, Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry
Over the past year, NI Chamber has consulted heavily with businesses to establish what skills gaps exist in their organisations and gather recommendations to address what has been a significant barrier to business growth. Hundreds of firms participated in our Future of Skills Forum and all of that interaction has formed the back-bone of our recent, very comprehensive response to the Department for the Economy’s 10X Skills Strategy.
Continuing with the same approach to skills development in Northern Ireland cannot continue because it is simply not working. We know that Northern Ireland’s investment in skills development is being eroded, we are losing competitiveness and the persistent issue of low productivity is not being addressed.
The 10X Skills Strategy sets out a clear vision for what we need to do to deliver a skills system in Northern Ireland that excels. The objectives are clear and it is particularly helpful to include a focus on the enablers to support those objectives – enhancing policy cohesion, developing strong relationships and investing in the skills system.
A shift of thinking is needed in Northern Ireland as to what skills matter to this region. There is a tendency to think ‘University First’ when other pathways to skills development and jobs can have equal success. Helping students make informed choices about future careers is critical yet it is unfunded. Based on this, we have recommended that the Executive provide a dedicated budget that will adequately resource a first-class careers and skills guidance system which gives every person a chance to take the right career path for them, which will in turn, maximise their contribution to the economy.
We strongly welcome the introduction of a dedicated Skills Portal, which will provide crucial information on the demand and supply of skills in Northern Ireland and help inform the education and training supports available. It will also address one of the biggest challenges faced in skills development which is the market failure around information – not knowing where to access it and not understanding what it means. It is critical that this portal is user friendly, providing easily accessible and timely information on the opportunities available for everyone in Northern Ireland to work and study here.
Apprenticeships, including Higher Level Apprenticeships, are an increasingly targeted route for developing talent. They offer significant advantages including providing an avenue for progression which reduces the cost of education and the cost of living for many students, whilst at the same time, being a much more strategic approach to matching the supply of skills with demand in the economy.
Employers know that apprenticeships will become a significant part of their resourcing going forward and they play a central part in the 10X Skills Strategy. However, in the detail of our response, we have highlighted some of the challenges facing employers engaging with the Apprenticeship model, including expense and complexity.
We have also stressed that the 10X Skills Strategy should have much more focus on reskilling, the need for which has been emphasised by the pandemic and EU exit. We believe there should be a dedicated strand that focuses explicitly on the opportunities for reskilling, particularly for the most marginalised and easily disconnected from the labour market, including people with low/no skills and an increasingly important group of ‘older workers’.
The Skills Strategy is arguably the most important piece of the jigsaw in driving forward strong, sustainable economic growth in Northern Ireland and achieving the aspirations that we have long believed are achievable for this region. NI Chamber’s ask is that the skills system is properly funded and works together cohesively for the benefit of people and employers. We have all the ingredients in terms of being able to increase skills capacity and ensure that the supply of skills match demand.