Director of Skills in the Department for the Economy, Graeme Wilkinson, discusses the key elements of a new 10-year Skills Strategy set to be published this summer, and the pandemic’s impact on its delivery outcomes.
Graeme Wilkinson describes a “renewed focus and enthusiasm” around the skills agenda from all sectors of the economy even prior to the pandemic, which has placed fresh emphasis on the need for economic recovery.
In particular, the Director of Skills points to the influences of automation, the digitisation of processes and the significant growth of Northern Ireland’s IT sector as driving factors behind that renewal of interest.
In September 2019, the Department for the Economy commissioned a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to assess the key skills issues impacting the local economy and to develop a range of recommendations. The report was published in June 2020 and Wilkinson highlights how feedback to the report consistently made the point that investment in skills is key to economic recovery and ensuring the economy is resilient to future shocks.
Setting out the “difficult policy context” in which the Department is operating to deliver a Skills Strategy, Wilkinson points to not only the impact of Covid-19 on the labour market, but also changes brought about by Brexit and the uncertain public expenditure outlook.
However, he maintains that even in the face of these challenges, the Minister and the Department are committed to delivering on their vision for “a more competitive, inclusive and greener economy”.
Ultimately, the challenges centre on the emerging labour market trends, which are of a reducing employment rate, rising unemployment and higher levels of economic inactivity. It’s also noted that these figures will be impacted further if the furlough scheme comes to an end as planned in April 2021, with the potential for Northern Ireland’s unemployment to rise from current estimations of 60,000 to over 100,000.
Wilkinson says that while the economic context for development of the Skills Strategy has changed, historical issues that have “bedevilled” Northern Ireland’s economy in recent decades must be kept in focus and efforts be made to address them. They include:
- a relatively low productivity rate, when compared with the rest of the UK;
- a greater number of workers with no qualifications, when compared with the UK average;
- a mid-level skills gap; and
- the highest economic inactivity rate of any region of the UK.
Underpinning Northern Ireland’s labour market challenges, suggests Wilkinson, is a legacy of under investment in skills in both private and public sectors.
However, Wilkinson admits that while the benefits of increased skills investment are obvious, the “difficult public expenditure” outlook means that hard decisions will have to be made around how the Northern Ireland Executive deploys its resources, in order to achieve a maximum return for its investment.
Northern Ireland’s last Skills Strategy was published in 2011 and covered the decade up to 2020. The new strategy will adopt a similar timeframe and look forward to 2030, however, Wilkinson suggests changes in how the strategy is adopted. Where the last strategy was very much viewed as a Department for Employment and Learning (DEL)-owned strategy, Wilkinson says that an emphasis is being placed on a whole-of-government approach, moving away from a siloed mentality.
To this end, he says that the establishment of a new project board, representative of all government departments, has been a positive experience and one that the Department is seeking to build upon.
Outlining the core design principles of the new strategy, Wilkinson says that a focus on inclusivity should serve as an indication that the Department is focused on ensuring that the strategy is relevant to wider society and that interventions will be designed and developed to support all to achieve their full potential. The importance of inclusivity, he believes, has been heightened by the pandemic’s impact on the labour market, recognising that individuals at the lower end of the skills spectrum are being hit hardest.
A second principle is that of responsiveness. Wilkinson explains: “What we don’t want is a document that sits on the shelf. It’s important that we have the systems in place that will allow us to respond and react to the needs of businesses, particularly at this critical time.”
Progression is another key principle. Wilkinson points to achievements from the previous strategy as a solid foundation on which to build upon. Additionally, he states that the agility demonstrated recently by the further and higher education sectors in response to the pandemic, as well as ongoing collaboration with the Department to deliver a range of Covid-19 driven services, is evidence of the existing relationships that will enable the more rapid response to business needs.
“The Minister has always been clear that we’re too small to be brilliant at everything and so we need to identify the areas where we have a competitive advantage. Having a focus on those key areas of growth is essential for us moving forward.”
Finally, Wilkinson highlights the final design principle of outcomes, pointing to the existing Programme for Government commitment of getting more people working in better jobs. “Our commitment to achieve that objective remains and I want to make sure that the strategy sets a pathway to help us achieve that ambition,” he explains.
Outlining some of the driving objectives of the strategy, Wilkinson points to a desire to develop a “digital spine” through from primary school age to PhD level. Additionally, he describes recognition from the Minister and in the Department of an increase in demand for those technical skills (levels three, four and five), where Northern Ireland has clear gaps. Addressing the skills imbalances in the labour market is a priority and Wilkinson notes an increased appetite from employers to use apprenticeship programmes to address their needs and a shift in the approach from employers in relation to how they recruit and develop their workforce, which he says the Minister is committed to assisting with.
He adds: “Careers advice is also critically important. A theme of the OECD research and the engagement we have had with stakeholders is the need to ensure that individuals are equipped with the necessary information to make informed choices about their future.
“However, I also think that employers have an important role to play in that communication, by being very clear about the skills that they require, not just now but into the future.”
A final core outcome, and one addressed in the OECD recommendations, is the need to develop a culture of lifelong learning in Northern Ireland. “Historically, we haven’t valued continued learning and development and that’s borne out in the statistics,” states Wilkinson. “Northern Ireland could improve when it comes to adult learning and I think that’s partly cultural. In the past, success was viewed as attaining a qualification and then entering a job for life, however, our changing economy means that few of us can be afforded that luxury. We need to ensure that skill sets are keeping up to date with the very changing needs of our economy.”
Turning to levers for achievement, the Director of Skills highlights the ambition to establish a National Skills Council, to support policy cohesion and help inform future interventions to support economic ambitions. On investment, he hopes to see a “turning of the curve” in relation to skills investment, including dedicated, ring-fenced finance to help support business and their ambitions. This, he believes, should be mainly targeted towards the growth sectors already identified, such as the ICT sector, advanced manufacturing, health and life sciences and around green growth.
“The Minister has always been clear that we’re too small to be brilliant at everything and so we need to identify the areas where we have a competitive advantage. Having a focus on those key areas of growth is essential for us moving forward,” Wilkinson concludes.
The Department aims to launch a consultation of the Skills Strategy in early 2021, with the formal launch of the strategy expected in the summer of 2021.