Skills build economic success

Minister for Employment and Learning Stephen Farry explains how Northern Ireland’s skills and apprenticeships strategies are giving the region a new economic edge.

My department has a key role to play in delivering the objectives of the Northern Ireland Economic Strategy through investing in skills and bringing people closer to the labour market.

Through the skills strategy for Northern Ireland, ‘Success through Skills – Transforming Futures’, we set out the overarching vision for the development of skills in Northern Ireland. This strategy sets out our strategic goals designed to meet the forecast skills profile required to enable Northern Ireland to compete globally. It advocates the need for higher level skills and, in particular, skills in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), the need to upskill, and the need to increase management and leadership skills.

As our skills forecasts continue to reveal a growing requirement for higher level skills, particularly under a lower corporation tax environment, our further and higher education providers in Northern Ireland have an increasingly crucial role to play in meeting our skills needs. Our economy is hungry for higher level skills and continued investment in their provision is paramount to our success.
Our further and higher education providers also have a responsibility to ensure those qualifications are relevant for wider employment, and that the apprentices and graduates they produce are prepared for working in the real world.

To these ends, our policies continue to focus more strategically on the types of qualifications employers in Northern Ireland actually require, in particular STEM. However, there is also a need to invest in wider employability skills through embedding work-related training within their curricula and the development of extra-curricular experiences with an employment focus, plus implementing policies to offer more work placements to students. I am also committed to increasing part-time provision. This permits people to combine their studies with practical work experience.

Our six further education colleges have also established excellent partnerships with industry through which they adapt courses to meet the skills needs of the economy. They continue to deliver bespoke training required by employers to meet their skills demands and have been an integral part of the academy model. This model, which has been delivered as part of my department’s Assured Skills programme, trains students with the bespoke set of skills required by the company involved and has delivered, to date, academies in priority skills areas such as software testing, cloud computing, data analytics, internet security and financial services.

‘Securing our Success’ – the Northern Ireland strategy on apprenticeships – is creating a new apprenticeship system. The new employer-led model will extend apprenticeships into a wider range of occupational areas. Apprenticeships will be offered from skills levels 3 to 8 and provide a pathway to higher level qualifications, including at degree level and above.

Universities, further education colleges and other approved providers, which meet the required quality standards, will be able to deliver the off-the-job training element of an apprenticeship.

Young people will have access to structured programmes in a range of industries and combine work with higher level study. It is through these kinds of policies that we can support our young people to traverse more smoothly into the world of work, to the benefit of themselves, their employers and our economy.

Vocational alternative
The new apprenticeship strategy will be complemented by a new youth training strategy which will be published shortly. This new approach to Level 2 qualifications will be designed to allow those who complete it to progress to an apprenticeship pathway.

This new system will be one that is recognised nationally and internationally and is respected as a valued alternative to the traditional academic progression route. A skills barometer will also be established to support the better matching of supply and demand with employers by providing a clear indication of current, emerging and long-term skills shortages.

It will balance the needs of young people with those of employers, contributing to the economy by delivering a workforce with the skills required by the labour market now and in the future, and providing young people with a foundation for lifelong learning that will help them adapt and progress in the modern workplace.

In order to ensure students are making the right career choices, my department and the Department of Education are updating the joint ‘Preparing for Success’ careers strategy for the period 2015-2020. The strategy will place more emphasis on the role of the careers system in ensuring that the existing and future workforce is encouraged to acquire the qualifications and skills for sustained employment in the current and future economy of Northern Ireland.

Key to this is ensuring that the needs of employers are understood and that young people, in particular, through robust labour market information, are aware of the risks and rewards associated with the various careers paths open to them.

Employer engagement continues to be a key focus for my department in the implementation of the skills strategy and local employers will have a vital role in supporting that work by ensuring that young people have ongoing exposure to the world of work through meaningful work experiences and mentoring programmes.

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