Northern Ireland Skills Barometer

The 2015 Northern Ireland Skills Barometer was intended as a model to gauge future skill needs and gaps by sector, subject area and level of qualification. The 2017 update reflects the latest economic context. agendaNi explores.

Against a Brexit backdrop, interest rates have been reduced (a trend likely to remain for longer) and the British Government has shelved its 2020 target of a balanced budget. This has a knock-on effect on job creation.

The Skills Barometer update, compiled in cooperation between the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre (UUEPC) and the Department for the Economy (DfE) forecasts the supply and demand for skills up until 2026 and where gaps are likely to emerge.

Macro-economic forecast

In terms of job creation, the UUEPC’s baseline projections forecast around 32,000 more jobs by 2026. To attain economic ambitions, a more significant increase in job creation will be necessary. The high growth scenario estimates an additional 87,000 jobs across all sectors in the same period.

With regards to employment change, if economic ambitions are met, there will be reasonably strong growth in:

• professional, scientific and technical services;

• information and communication;

• administration and support services;

• health; and

• manufacturing.

At the same time, due to reduced government spending, there will be a minor decrease in the public sector, including public administration and defence, as well as education.

At the time of the report’s publication, there were approximately 840,700 people in employment, with a projected increase to 924,700 by 2026. The average annual gross demand of employment opportunities is 80,400. While the majority of these (51,800) will be taken up by people already in the labour market, those emerging from education will be required to fill the remaining 28,600 opportunities. While any subsequent gaps in demand would then typically be satiated by inward migration, post-Brexit restrictions may place additional strain on the local education system to ensure sufficient supply.


The annual average net demand across the National Qualification Framework (NQF) scale indicates that a higher proportion of skills requirement will come from the upper end of the spectrum. The lowest projected demand is attributed to NQF level one or below (11.2 per cent) with NQF level six or above representing the highest annual average net requirement for skills (30.4 per cent).

In other words, while graduate level skills are in high demand, only 11 per cent of job opportunities will be available to those individuals with below NQF level two qualifications (5+ GCSEs at A* to C). Currently, 19 per cent of school leavers will fall into this bracket (34 per cent when including GCSE maths and English). Job opportunities for those with low skills has halved from 22 per cent in 2009 and, as a result, employment opportunity increase in positive correlation with educational attainment.

More broadly, skills demand will outstrip supply in Northern Ireland. However, the annual average labour market skills gap is a spectrum. While at either extremity (NQF level zero/one and NQF level seven/eight) there is a degree of oversupply, overall there is significant under-supply, which is particularly severe at the mid-level (NQF level three to five) and marginally at high level (NQF level six+).


Fundamental to the marginal shortage at a combined graduate and post-graduate level is the imbalance in subject selection. Subjects which are most significantly undersupplied include: engineering and technology; maths and computer science; physical and environmental sciences; humanities; and languages and cultural studies. It is anticipated that 400 additional graduates will be required in each engineering and technology and maths and computer science annually.

On the other hand, subjects which are most significantly oversupplied include: education; social studies; law; business and financial; biological sciences; and medicine and dentistry. Little to no growth in public sector budgets will reduce the demand for such skills which are popular across the public services.

At the same time, while a subject area may be over-supplied, this should not inhibit students who have either a strong interest or aptitude from pursuing the same. However, it may be more challenging to find employment in a subject-related sector. For instance, while law is oversubscribed, it provides a depth of transferable skills which unlock access to employment across a broad cross-section of the economy. Likewise, while biological sciences as a whole are oversupplied, particularly in psychology and sports science, other subsidiaries are actually undersupplied.

While across the mid-tier, gaps are projected to emerge across subject areas, supply remains the primary concern. Most of those individuals studying at NQF level three continue to progress up the levels, reducing the supply of those who leave at this point. The alternative therefore, is to encourage those who generally leave education at NQF level two to progress to level three and above. As the demand for formal qualifications increases across all sectors, the employment prospects of those with low or no skills will negatively correlate.

At NQF level four to five there is undersupply both at macro-level and across virtually all subject areas. As is the case with the higher skill level, greatest undersupply is prevalent in STEM subject areas.

Within STEM subject areas, which are in demand across several sectors with significant growth potential, there exists a consistent undersupply. Engineering is one of the few professions that requires a qualification in a STEM subject, while those individuals possessing STEM qualifications are not similarly bound. Likewise, other occupations, such as accountancy, are not restricted to sector specific subject disciplines.

Employability skills

In addition to subject specific academic or technical skills, transferable employability skills are an important component of a young potential employee’s repertoire. Such skills tend to focus on:

• problem solving;

• team working;

• communication;

• people management;

• commercial awareness;

• critical/objective thinking;

• professional attitude; and

• initiative.

Therefore, while institutions must integrate these into course delivery, there is an onus on young people to develop their employability skillset through work experience (i.e. through a placement or internship) in a role linked to their chosen career path. On average, the proportion of vacancies filled by interns or placement students is one in three. This arrangement is mutually beneficial for both students and employers as an opportunity to develop an understanding of what is required and gauge ability.

Research undertaken by The Graduate Market in 2016 emphasises the importance of such programmes in bolstering efforts to secure graduate-level employment. Vacancies are more likely to be filled by graduates who have already have experience with an employer, particularly in the areas of: investment banking; law; banking and finance; consumer goods; oil and energy; consulting; IT and telecommunications; and media.

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