The future role of social enterprises in Northern Ireland’s economic recovery has been given a welcome boost by their inclusion in skills and innovation supports offered by the Department for the Economy.
From the outset of the pandemic, Economy Minister Diane Dodds MLA has indicated her ambitions to put skills at the heart of Northern Ireland’s economic recovery and the inclusion of social enterprises in recovery support schemes indicate a central role in future recovery plans.
The Department for the Economy are currently developing a new long-term Skills Strategy with an expected launch date of summer 2021. In early March, the Minister Diane Dodds told the Northern Ireland Assembly that the strategy will aim to address not only the short term challenges arising as a consequence of Covid-19, but also in addressing the long-term weaknesses within the economy.
“We have an opportunity to consider more efficient ways to deliver training and development, particularly given the move to online delivery as a consequence of the pandemic. We need to change attitudes to learning and upskilling. Our economy is changing very quickly, with automation and digitisation transforming the workplace,” she says.
“It is essential that employers and individuals recognise the need to invest time and money in people.”
The Minister outlined her intention to launch a suite of skills interventions, including employability skills, and highlighted a £15 million need for investment over the next three years.
It now seems likely that the social enterprise sector will be eligible to be involved in the scheme after the Department moved in September 2020 to broaden the eligibility criteria for their Skills Focus and InnovateUs programmes to enable social enterprise to apply for support.
“The Skills Focus and InnovateUs programmes enable businesses to access learning, fully funded by my department, from the local further education colleges for upskilling and reskilling and to boost innovation. I am pleased that social enterprises, as businesses in their own right, will now also be able to access this support,” the Minister said on widening the scheme.
“I know there is demand within the local social enterprise sector for support of this kind and I look forward to organisations in this sector identifying opportunities to access Skills Focus and InnovateUs and engaging with colleges to take projects forward.”
The move was welcomed by the sector, with Social Enterprise NI Director Colin Jess emphasising the importance placed on building the skills base of people working in social enterprises to improve the services they provide and operational efficiency.
The Skills Focus programme aims to support collaboration between the business sector and further education institutions to provide tailored skills provisions to SMEs and is fully funded by the Department until March 2022.
The InnovateUs programme offers tailored training for small businesses to undertake innovation activity. The programme’s focus is small businesses with under 50 employees and aims to improves skills to engage in innovation activities across the business, enabling businesses to undertake additional and further forms of innovation, which will contribute to their growth and development.
In February, the Minister launched her Economic Recovery Action Plan. The report identifies supporting a highly-skilled workforce, stimulating research and development, building a greener economy and promoting investment, trade and exports as the drivers to recover.
As well as extending eligibility of their skills support schemes, the Department have identified ongoing work in leading the cross-departmental Social Economy Policy Group “to deliver an integrated strategic approach to the social economy”.
The Department currently funds the social economy sector through the Social Economy Work Programme and recently confirmed that Social Enterprise NI has been successful in securing the grant to deliver the new work programme for the next three years.