The recently published update to the Northern Ireland Skills Barometer highlights 19300 replacement jobs and 9300 expansion roles over the next 10 years. In the last Employer Skills Survey by the UK Commission for Employment & Skills, 15% or 2870 vacancies were hard to fill through skills shortages while also confirming 30% of employees are underutilised (56000 in NI).
This problem is hampering the economy, lack of wage growth and productivity has created sluggish economic activity across the UK, growth struggling to get above 1% and a fragility to the economic development coming out of recession we have not seen before.
So how do we solve this problem of too many people with the wrong skills for the role coupled with a shortage of skilled people?
In Northern Ireland the skills academies developed by the Department for Economy in conjunction with the Further Education colleges have been a huge success and provide a focused and well executed programme for individual company needs. While this is generating results it does not solve the problem, it does however highlight one of the root causes for the problem! We continue to provide 3rd level education and qualifications that do not meet the needs of the modern economy, the reduction in public sector roles and the increasing digitisation of every aspect of the world of work. The academy approach is therefore only a sticking plaster mitigating the issue in the short term.
What are the long term options that business, government and academia can look at that will make a real difference:
1. 14 to 19 Year Old Framework
A much needed review and overhaul of provision for 14 to 19 year olds is essential in Northern Ireland. The lack of a joined up approach across departments and agencies has a negative impact and unintended consequences of some policies are leaving us with polarised outcomes. With over a third of our young people being failed at this level a change in approach is essential, offering clear academic and professional / technical pathways that have complete parity and equality of value. The T levels in England may be a flawed concept but they are a step ahead of where we are now in Northern Ireland.
We must also stop providing knowledge, in the digital environment we live in knowledge is more accessible than it has ever been, not being able to use that knowledge is however unacceptable. Any new framework needs to embrace problem / project based learning and other elements that change the pedagogy towards supporting application of knowledge. Having skills for the workplace and that flexibility to approach the world of work is vital.
2. Investing in the Skills of the Adult Workforce
Skills development needs to be sign as a continuum not just something we do when we enter the world of work. As we start to see the world of work include 4 generations for the first time we need to ensure all have the skills required to be of value to the economy. Being able to access training / re-skilling / up-skilling throughout you work career will be essential as technology advances, old roles and jobs become obsolete and new roles are developed.
As disruptive technology and the resulting use of this either in traditional businesses or through the gig economy, business / government / academia need to look at ways to ensure learning while in work is accessible and affordable. This must allow both the individual and the organisation to change direction quickly and in a manner that meets the market demands or needs.
3. Employer Best Practise
Through the new Be the Business (UK Productivity Leadership) or Investors in People business must engage in a collaborative basis and network to develop themselves, their supply chains and every aspect of the business. Business must get beyond insular self interest and recognise the sum of the parts is greater. Whether this is real and genuine supply chain development (why does it always appear that the prime only has one interest in supply chain development – reduced cost of acquisition?) or SME’s across a sector sharing ideas and how they are addressing skills issues it will lead to improved skills utilisation.
Utilising benchmarks from the likes of Investors in People will help businesses understand how they are leading, developing a culture of trust and ownership, managing performance, structuring work or creating sustainable success. Using these tools will help identify the real skills gaps but also where people are being underutilised within the organisation.
4. Government being an Enabler
At both a UK wide and NI devolved administration level we continue to see government endeavour to be a solution provider rather than an enabler. What is the difference? A current example is the Apprenticeship Levy, government is looking to deliver a solution to the “skills gap”. As a consequence it is driving behaviours that are far from addressing the skills gap but simply training for sake of training to get a return on levy funds being paid.
On the other hand providing seed funding to enable the Productivity Leadership Group and BetheBusiness.com to get up and operational leaving it to business to make it work, develop strategy, grow the movement and impact productivity is genuinely enabling. Stopping focus on one size fits all solutions and allowing business to evolve and tailor provision for skills is vital.
5. FE / HE review
The move to 6 FE colleges in NI has been a huge success, in comparison to the rest of the UK we have a world class FE structure. Despite this the linkage between FE and HE is tenuous and therefore the outcomes that come from 3rd level education do not meet business, productivity / competitiveness or the rapidly changing global economy we now live in. Everyone within the 3rd level education sector needs to ensure that
The FE Means Business has meant business and FE have never been closer in NI, there are still gaps, however there is now a chasm between HE and business. STEM is the most high cost element of HE provision that is not in doubt and yet course content and what is being taught bears little relevance to the world of manufacturing today.
We have significant resources inside business and waiting to be tapped outside of business, how can we come up with some of the most innovative products and yet cannot come together to develop what has been described as “the only asset that matters” – our people?