Before we look at where business can move forward and grow, there is a need for government to listen and create the environment for business to succeed. This should be looked at individually, in partnerships and industry wide with a focus on long term growth plans as a way of aligning public and private resources. Creating social partnership activity in Northern Ireland is vital and government can facilitate all private sector businesses, unions and third sector working in partnership to deliver an industrial / business strategy that will benefit everyone. Supporting and nurturing some of the industry wide partnerships that have formed over the last few years can help establish a dialogue where the start-up and SME voice is heard just as readily as the large employer and the representative bodies.
So what can business do to lead growth in Northern Ireland?
Improving workplace productivity should be recognised as the key route to increasing pay and prosperity in Northern Ireland. Up to 90 per cent of the current workforce will still be in work in the next decade. For us to tackle the productivity and competitiveness deficit in the economy, there must be a greater focus by business on job design, use of technology and progression for those in work. Jeremy Anderson, Chair, Global Financial Services at KPMG say “If we are serious about raising productivity and creating better jobs the workplace matters.” We must as a business community develop the skills of those in employment, 4.3million people in employment have skills that are not fully utilised. Over the past decade of devolution there has been almost exclusive focus on whether schools, colleges and universities are producing the skills to meet business needs and the economy. This has a place but what about those working for us already?
Working practise innovation in comparison to technological innovation is not that common, yet when tested and implemented the results are world class, BAE SYSTEMS did this in their naval facilities in Glasgow gaining 17% productivity improvements.
Business must also genuinely invest in leadership and management capability, if we are going to become a high performing business community (already lagging the rest of the UK by 25%) then we must make long term commitments to develop the skills of this key part of the business.
Earning and Learning
It is hard to overstate the importance of combining work and learning in helping to make the first step into a career. In general terms young people who combine work and learning are less likely to be NEET (not in education, employment or training) and earn more than those who don’t. In the higher education sector, combining work with studies, whether through problem based learning techniques or placement / sandwich years, leads to better degrees, higher wages and lower graduate unemployment. For employers, these models provide an effective way to grow new talent and address long-term skills needs.
Business in Northern Ireland must invest in the Apprenticeship Strategy that is being rolled out, get involved and support the implementation and creation of system that will create a career pathway from youth training at level 2 or equivalent to level 3 apprenticeships through to higher level apprenticeship pathway to level 8. Only 10% of employers use apprentices, in Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Australia it is 3 to 4 times as many.
To achieve more apprenticeships we need to employers to get involved, real employer leadership of apprenticeships will develop the quantity and quality of those being trained. Employers must recognise the Government cannot create be-spoke apprenticeships but while government is willing to continue to fully fund the “off the job” element business should invest in the internal training.
Employers and Education
To create a workforce with the right skills and experience, far greater connectivity is needed between the education system and the world of work, at every level. This means business stepping up the engagement level with education to support lifelong learning opportunities for everyone. While 75% of businesses in Northern Ireland want 19-25 year olds to have work experience only 30% are offering work experience.
There are many challenges for business in providing work experience, not least time and resource. By work experience it is not 1 or 2 weeks on site making tea and siting in meetings. It can include support for programmes like Young Enterprise, job tasters, site visits, mock interviews, careers talks and skills competitions support. This kind of “work inspiration” should start as early as possible and as the young person gets closer to the labour market should more and more closely replicate and feel like real work. Gail Cartmail from Unite the Union summed it up as “Experience of work and good quality careers information have a vital role in preparing young people for work and tackling occupational segregation. Schools must play their role in challenging gender stereo types, working with employers and union learning reps to do so.”
In particular as our economy increases the need for level 4 or 5 qualified skills we must as business work with education to address the deficit in mid to higher level technical skills. As a result of this deficit we are creating barriers to business growth and economic success through lack of social mobility. Business engaging with our further education sector in Northern Ireland can impact this greatly, finding new and innovative pedagogical systems.
Success is NOT Jobs Created
While creating jobs is vital, that own its own is not a definition of success. Business must inform and lead with government on creating measures of success that link improved productivity with social mobility. What is needed is a wider basket of outcome measures holding business, education, government and others to account and leads to long term planning and investment that will provide generational benefits. What can we measure for success then is:
- Leadership and process improvement across all parts of the economy but especially in the SME community
- Digitisation of the business community, how are businesses embracing new applications and the opportunities they create
- Measuring demographic trends and skills trends
- Progression opportunities in the workplace
- Innovation application, how we use the world class research base in NI to add value to the wider economy
- Workplace practise development
Coupled to this we need business to find ways to benchmark performance both within and across sectors.
If we are to create a real recovery in the Northern Ireland economy, break the weak growth cycle we need business led growth, through our people, our processes, our embracing technology and a capacity and desire for change.