Skills: A key economic driver

Employment and Learning Minister Dr Stephen Farry MLA sets out the importance of skills to the local economy and outlines the current work of his department in identifying skills requirements.


Skills are a key driver to ensure Northern Ireland can achieve its goals in terms of the development of a modern knowledge based economy.

My Department’s new Skills Barometer provides an innovative tool to identify the skills requirements for our economy up to 2025. This includes analysis of job growth, examination of the changing skills mix, and a review into the demand and supply of skills highlighting potential imbalances.

This instrument highlights that while there will be growth opportunities for all skills levels across a range of sectors, our economy is particularly hungry for higher level skills. Furthermore, there is strong need for people with intermediate and graduate level skills in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects and continued investment in their provision is paramount to our success.

My department’s responsibilities include identifying and meeting the skills needs of employers and the wider economy; providing a full range of opportunities for our young people to achieve their full potential in terms of education, training and employment and to promote the STEM agenda.

One of my top priorities as Minister for Employment and Learning has been to transform our professional and technical education and training system, in order to provide the most effective support for the growth of our economy, and to provide learning pathways that enable everyone to reach their full potential.

Apprenticeships provide an excellent means by which employers can obtain the skills they require, as well as being assured that there is a strong skills base across the workforce. Under our new Apprenticeship Strategy, they can be applied to any professional or technical occupation and will now commence at level 3 and upwards, offering progression into further and higher education and mobility across the economy. It is my objective that a higher level apprenticeship will be held in equal esteem to traditional higher education and will provide a direct route into a range of occupations and sectors previously only accessible through traditional pathways.

The Apprenticeship Strategy is driven by strategic partnership; putting employers at its very heart; better matching supply with demand and providing opportunities in a much wider range of occupations.

Generating our Success: The Northern Ireland Strategy for Youth Training will also establish a new traineeship system of professional and technical learning for those young people aged 16-24, who require training at level 2. This will be accessible to those new to the labour market, already in employment and those not yet in employment.

It will have a dual purpose to provide young people with a solid foundation of the skills, experience and qualifications that are recognised and valued by employers. It will also provide them with a broad-based knowledge and skills as a basis from which they can access future opportunities for employment or further study.

These new systems recognise that employers need to be engaged effectively to ensure that their training needs are met. As such, employers will play an important role in the development of relevant curricula and the provision of work based learning opportunities.

Over the next 10 years, the pace of change will accelerate, driven by globalisation, advances in technology, new business models and rapidly changing consumer needs. In particular, the planned introduction of a reduced rate of corporation tax has the potential to invigorate our competitiveness and growth, and lead to substantial changes to the world of work. Our colleges and universities are highly regarded internationally, and noted for their responsiveness to the needs of our local industry.

The new Further Education Strategy for Northern Ireland, ‘Further Education Means Success’, sets out the future direction of further education in Northern Ireland, providing a huge opportunity to drive further positive economic change, promote individual opportunity and achieve greater social cohesion.

A competitive further education sector is an intrinsic component of any modern knowledge economy, with the sector contributing in a number of valuable ways including the provision of education, skills and qualifications with over 175,000 enrolments in 2014/2015 across Northern Ireland.

Our higher education providers also drive our region by equipping people with higher level skills. Skills which have made Northern Ireland the leading UK region for attracting inward investment outside of London.

Higher education is also one of the surest ways for people, regardless of their background, to improve their life chances and employment prospects. Individuals equipped with a degree level qualification are significantly more likely to secure a job than those without. And more students from Northern Ireland from lower socio-economic classification groups are reaping these rewards than any other part of the UK, accounting for almost 40 per cent of young full-time first degree entrants to higher education in 2013/14.

Our higher education system is therefore crucial to our wider economic development in Northern Ireland, and it is a crucial enabler of social mobility, social cohesion, and social change.

I recently announced a new ‘top-up’ tuition fee loan for part-time undergraduate higher education students. This new, non means tested, ‘top-up’ tuition fee loan for part-time students means students from lower incomes will continue to be able to access the existing grants, but they will also be able to top them up with a loan for their tuition fees should they need to, providing them with the same level of tuition fee support over the lifetime of their course as their full-time counterparts.

Students ineligible to receive the existing fee grants will also be able to access these new loans. This combination of grants and loans for part-time tuition fee support is unique within the UK. Introducing this improved support package is not only a matter of social justice; it is an economic imperative as we contend with increasing skills demands and the need to up-skill and re-skill our existing workforce.

My Departments Assured Skills initiative continues to be an excellent example of pro-active government intervention to meet the skills needs of both local and investing companies, whilst enhancing the skills of unemployed graduates, offering employment opportunities and contributing to the growth of our local economy. When a company is interested in creating jobs in Northern Ireland, Assured Skills provides the necessary support to deliver a skilled workforce through the delivery of bespoke training programmes.

It does this by employing all of my department’s responsibilities including the Employment Service, the higher and further education sectors and the department’s skills and training programmes

During my time as Minister, I have introduced, implemented and driven forward strategic measures to further develop the skills agenda supporting Northern Ireland’s future economic prosperity and developing opportunities for all.

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