Recognising that better skills matching would provide a significant boost to economic output, the Closing the Skills Gap report, commissioned by the Department for the Economy and carried out by Work+, has suggested that government departments with a skills responsibility should allocate skills budget based on closing the productive capacity gap and providing skills balance.
“In Northern Ireland, jobs are concentrated in small and micro businesses, with only 2 per cent of employers having more than 50 staff,” the report explains.
Drawing on policy and practice from six small, advanced economies and primary research with both supply and demand sides of the Northern Ireland skills system, the report explains that there is a need for “greater support for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in growth sectors like FinTech and life and health sciences (LHS) to connect with career explorers of all ages”.
The report continues: “Career explorers struggle to make informed decisions and SMEs find it hard to recruit and retain talent. The Department for the Economy (DfE) should continue to develop the Northern Ireland careers marketplace with SMEs in mind, to ensure that it is relevant for both sides of the market. Employers in both sectors recognise the need to aggregate their demand with others – even competitors – to make their sector more visible.
“They are keen to build collaborative networks, initiate academies and apprenticeships but often do not know how to do this. Initiatives like The FinTech Academy should be built upon, helping to bring employers, educators, and local authorities together to provide promotional campaigns and employment opportunities in the sector.”
DfE should, the report asserts, consider how careers services can best support economic growth whilst maintaining impartial careers advice. The Department has reported that, by March 2024, it will develop a set of common quality standards for the delivery of careers guidance in all settings.
With the increasing digitalisation of human resources and job roles specifications, there is an opportunity to better communicate jobs in term of transversal skills and aptitude, rather than generic terms and qualifications. Skills mapping of job roles could support career explorers in managing their careers and identifying the roles that are best suited to their skills and aptitude.
The report argues that there is a need for increased engagement between employers and education providers including schools, colleges, and universities to ensure talent pools are equipped with the requisite skills for jobs and be better prepared for the world of work including solid career management and interview skills. The quality of candidates and careers connections needs to be improved in both sectors and sectoral representative bodies can play a key role to advocate for better and more informed career choices.
The report explains that there is “much evidence from both the OECD countries and the EU27 that lifelong learning is prevalent, and that Northern Ireland lags behind in encouraging this once individuals have left the education system”.
“What is harder to determine from the evidence is whether the main purpose of the policy on lifelong learning is for a societal good, an economic good or both. Government should ensure that publicly funded lifelong skills training is coherent and marketed as a set of unique “products” which are relevant to individuals and SMEs, regardless of delivery partner.”
Recommendations for government
The report states that there needs to be recognition of the extent to which having a better skills matching would provide a significant boost to economic output in Northern Ireland. Therefore, it calls on government departments with a skills responsibility to allocate skills budgets based on the direction of travel necessary toward the “prize” of closing the productive capacity gap and providing a better skills balance.
Recognising the dynamic change to the Northern Ireland labour market which has and will continue to be beset by Brexit, the report highlights a need to fill in the gap in certain sectors which has traditionally been filled by migrant labour. Part of this gap, the report explains, will be filled by increasing the number of people with STEM qualifications.
A further recommendation is for a stronger level of collaboration between careers departments in academic institutions and industry. “Career explorers in schools are hindered due to the inability of schools and employers to stay connected with industry advancements, in terms of technology, curriculum and careers information,” the report asserts, adding: “There is a need for a stronger connection between education and industry, as highlighted in the action plan of the 14-19 Strategy.”