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Northern Ireland

NI Economy Minister addresses IoD NI & Phoenix Natural Gas Event

08 Dec 2021

Good morning and I am delighted to join you all for this breakfast event this morning.

I have now been in post for some five months, and over that short time have had the opportunity to speak at a range of events, visit a number of companies and travel to elsewhere in the world to help local companies find new buyers for their products. I have met with our Universities and spoken to our students. I have met with the airports and spoken to airlines wanting to establish new air routes to Northern Ireland. I have met with innovative companies who are at the cutting edge of technology. I have met with start-ups who are finding their feet and getting started. And I have even met one or two retailers as I travelled the length and breadth of Northern Ireland with my big spend local card!


This job allows me to meet the brightest and the best we have to offer. It allows me to see the impact Northern Ireland is having across the globe. It is the reason why I am optimistic about this place and where our economy is going.


I have already laid out my plans for building a healthy economy here in Northern Ireland, and one that provides opportunities for every person, in every community across the province.


There is no doubt that our labour market was deeply impacted by Covid-19 and the various restrictions imposed by the Executive during the toughest months of the pandemic, but there are clear signs now that the Northern Ireland economy is recovering with strength.


A year ago we feared the worst – but only last week ONS research demonstrated Northern Ireland had the strongest performance of all UK regions in returning to pre Covid levels of performance – not because of any new trading arrangements but because of the level of support through the various financial schemes provided by my Department and from the UK Government through the furlough scheme. I have no doubt that many thousands of businesses have been saved as a result, and that of course means many tens of thousands of jobs – real people and real families.


It was incredible to see how our local businesses responded to that economic test too – they proved themselves to be resilient, innovative and agile.


But I, and my colleagues, have always been clear. The best help to business is allowing them to trade. Getting ‘back to business’ provides our best opportunity for economic recovery and renewal.


And when I speak of renewal I don’t mean just returning to how things were done before. I am determined, just as my predecessors in this Department were, to shake things up and do things differently.


Earlier this year, Diane Dodds launched the ‘Vision for a 10x Economy’. The Vision represents a bold ambition to make a transformational change in our economy that will benefit all our people. It doesn’t look like or sound like the usual government strategies.


The ‘10x ambition’ is about creating a step change in how we think about our economy. It’s not simply about multiplying everything by ten but rather a representation of the scale of the ambition that lies behind this vision.


We will do this by being bold.


We will do this by focusing on our strengths.


We will do this by placing innovation at the very heart of our economy, to drive the economic growth and the fundamental change needed to see Northern Ireland placed amongst the most competitive small advanced economies of the world.


I want to see local businesses, including those represented here, to be enabled and encouraged to innovate and deliver inclusive and sustainable growth.


But 10X does not sit in isolation. It is the new spine running through my Department and I regularly ask officials how their work is feeding in to the 10X vision. People working in FE, HE, Energy, Economic Development, Trade. All working towards a new, bold ambition.


Tomorrow I will be returning to my old school to highlight the review I have launched into careers advice. It is crucial that we prepare our young people to access high quality jobs in delivering our vision of a 10x economy. I want to ensure they know what the jobs market is likely to look like in the next decade, and what skills they need to thrive in it.


That’s why I have also launched the Skills for 10X strategy too. In my view, alongside health, skills should be the top priority for this, and the nest Executive.


My Department has already made significant progress in this regard including through the reform and simplification of the vocational pathways with Skills for Life and Work and Traineeships and by working with employers across a wide range of sectors to ensure that apprenticeship training reflects the changing needs of industry.


The NI Traineeship programme is the new vocational education offer at Level 2 that will support an individual’s learning in preparation for their entry into the workforce or to higher levels of study.   It has been designed to meet the needs of local employers and offer breadth of learning for the individual.  


Apprenticeship frameworks are being updated and refreshed from level 2 through to Higher Level Apprenticeships to reflect changing industry needs in areas such as cyber security and digital forensics, scientific technologies and polymer processing.


I am also committed to the introduction of Public Sector Apprenticeships which will ensure that our public sector workers have the same upskilling and reskilling opportunities as those in the private sector.


The independent review into careers will allow us to take a fresh look at how we best prepare our workforce of the future, and our skills strategy will equip them with the tools they need to get there.


The new draft Skills Strategy, “Skills for a 10X Economy”, twelve week public consultation closed on 19th August. I would like to thank those from industry who took the time to consider and respond to the consultation; their input was much appreciated.  The Skills Team is currently finalising the Strategy after reviewing the consultation responses, with a view to launching by the end of this year.


A key commitment within the Strategy is the establishment of a new Northern Ireland Skills Council to oversee the implementation of the Strategy.


I launched Skill Up – The Flexible Skills Fund in August 2021, a new initiative supporting courses that are directly linked to priority areas for future economic growth in Northern Ireland. Skill Up will allow NI citizens to equip themselves with the skills they need for current available jobs and those in new and emerging sectors.


With an investment of up to £23million over three years, Skill Up will support training of individuals to address labour shortages and skill imbalances across all levels of employment within Northern Ireland. 


One of the things I hear from investors all the time is how good our assured skills programmes are.


The Assured Skills programme provides industry-focused training that equips participants with transferable skills to help them compete for job opportunities and is open to 18 year olds and over and targeted at those who are unemployed, underemployed and career changers.


The Academy model employed is designed to be a “short, sharp” intervention of usually six to eight weeks, sometimes longer, pre-employment training, working with new Foreign Direct Investment or expanding locally based companies.


So I am very positive about the direction we are headed in, and believe in our people in getting us there. But I am realistic to know that we face some challenges now and in the longer term too.


I am aware that businesses across a number of sectors including Agri-food, Haulage, Hospitality and Manufacturing are reporting difficulties on recruiting the staff they need. Not helped by some negative commentary from some politicians and elements of the media.


To address this important issue my officials and I continue to engage with the Home Office to ensure that the Points-Based Immigration System reflects the needs of the Northern Ireland Labour Market working with other devolved governments.


Invest NI is developing a new Programme designed to attract ‘back’ members of the Northern Ireland diaspora.


I always try to avoid talking about the protocol before breakfast – but it would be odd if I didn’t mention it at all.


I recognise that even in this room this morning people will have voted differently in respect of Brexit, and will have differing views on the protocol.


My views are clear, but even more clear is my determination to ensure we get a complete and permanent solution to the frictions many of our businesses are facing as a result of checks on goods within the internal UK market.


Businesses continue to raise concerns with me – and we need to sort out the GB – NI trade issue. This isn’t a DUP issue. It isn’t even a Unionist issue. It is in all of our interests.  While many businesses have adapted, all will bear increased costs, especially when already under pressure from inflation and other supply chain issues. When we see the cost of many basic goods rising, I want to ensure that our consumers do not face higher prices or reduced choice than those in GB.

I welcome the work of the IoD and its members to clearly identify, set out these issues and to press for the solutions which are urgently needed.


While I welcome negotiations between the EU and the UK on the operation of the Protocol, I do not want to see continuing uncertainty having a negative impact on businesses and investment. The open-ended extension of the grace periods is welcome, but it does not itself solve the issues being faced.


I have been raising these concerns with the UK Government at all levels to press for recognition of these issues and concrete actions to resolve them. Long-term sustainable solutions need to be found to provide certainty and stability for NI businesses.


I want to conclude my remarks this morning on a more positive note.


My Department is currently leading on the development of the Executive’s new Energy Strategy, which will cover almost 60% of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and play a crucial role in our efforts to address climate change.


We will use the strategy to ensure our energy is secure, affordable and clean as we work towards our vision of net zero carbon and affordable energy.


I recently attended COP26 and this has really brought to the fore how important it is for us not only to take climate action but also take advantages of the economic opportunities.


Growing the green economy is central to our new Energy Strategy and will be a key driver of my 10X Economic Vision.


I am particularly excited about the opportunities in the hydrogen economy, where we have unique opportunities to attract investment, grow our exports and generate clean energy.


This will build on our proposed target of at least 70% renewable electricity by 2030, which will be a major driver of investment in clean technologies in Northern Ireland.


In addition to growing our renewables base, we will take an “energy efficiency first” approach which will benefit all of us –as both business and domestic consumers – by delivering lower energy bills than would otherwise be the case. This will also provide a substantial economic stimulus, with “real” investment in our buildings happening on the ground.


It is my intention to bring this strategy to the next Executive Meeting and I look forward to working with all of you in this room to make it, and the other 10X papers. I want to transform our economy and build a brighter, better and healthier economy for all of us who call this place home.


Thank you

For more information, please contact the IoD NI Office on: 

028 9694 6209


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