IoD NI & The Open University Opening Opportunities – discussing the direction of skills in Northern Ireland

The latest event in the ongoing partnership between the IoD NI and the Open University Ireland, saw the two organisations gather together some of Northern Ireland’s leading female voices to hold a panel discussion on the future of skills.

Held in Belfast’s Merchant Hotel on Thursday November 24th, ‘Opening Opportunities – discussing the direction of skills in Northern Ireland’ was a chance for female leaders across business, manufacturing, and further and higher education, to come together and share ideas about what each of the sectors represented can do to further support the development of skills in Northern Ireland.

Regional Director at the IoD NI chaired the discussion which included contributions from Jackie Henry, Partner, Deloitte; Mary Meehan, Deputy Chief Executive, Manufacturing NI, Marie-Thérèse McGivern, former Chief Executive at Belfast Met; Carol Fitzsimons, CEO, Young Enterprise Northern Ireland and from the Open University, Dr. Lynsey Quinn, Senior Skills & Partnerships Manager.

A unique environment

From the outset, all contributors were keen to stress how unique the landscape is in Northern Ireland. To explain the relevance of this, Maire-Thérèse McGivern suggested that it’s important to look at a number of stats before you can fully understand the complexities of the skills debate here.

“Think of the context of what we are looking at. For too long, Northern Ireland has been at the bottom of so many lists ranking things like productivity, economic output, the number of those who are economically inactive, the lowest number of people with disabilities in employment for example. Add to this the fact that we have a historical skills literacy problem. Some fail to comprehend the true meaning and value of skills and will instead cling on to more traditional ideas around learning and employment.  We need to see a shift away from viewing a vocational route into the workforce as the ‘second best option’ and if this isn’t grasped, then the whole skills issue becomes much more urgent.”

As the discussion got underway, it was clear that all contributors recognised this same sense of urgency and were keen to play their part in terms of tackling some of the bigger issues. But it was also evident how passionate they each were to champion the talents and abilities of the local workforce here.

“One thing that has always impressed me and other senior partners at Deloitte is the high standard of young people coming into the business,” explained Jackie Henry. “This will always be a standout quality we have here. Part of our legacy means that we are a gritty, resilient, curious people and such attributions translate exceptionally well into driven and ambitious team members who can go on to develop expert client solutions across the globe. We hear this time and time again from FDI teams who are ready to snap up investment opportunities here but in spite of this, ongoing structural problems are turning them away.”

“It’s also important not to neglect that our current skills approach is leaving too high a proportion of young people outside of the net”, continued Jackie. “We’re not doing justice to this cohort, and it can no longer be acceptable that so many are being left behind.”

Evolution of the Skills System

It’s clear there is a genuine willingness amongst business leaders to develop skills in employees and young people but it’s not a problem they can tackle on their own.

For Dr. Lynsey Quinn the approach is to always try and build on the positives and in her view, you don’t have to look to far to find many of these in Northern Ireland.

“Look at the existing pockets of expertise here. We are world leaders when it comes to pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, and creative industries for example. But continuing low standards of digital and management capabilities coupled with low investment in adult education threatens the confidence these thriving sectors can have in the future. It always comes back to a lack of workforce planning, and we would argue that unless the direction of skills is agreed upon and enacted across the board, then it’s neither possible nor viable to have adequate workforce planning in place.”

Few business leaders will be closer to a world class system in terms of companies here than Mary Meehan, of Manufacturing NI. During the discussion, she pointed out that one factory alone in Co. Down produces 25% of world aircraft seats. “The level of innovative capabilities and the heritage of family businesses here are exceptional but how do you nurture this? From our own engagement with schools and further and higher education organisations, we know that there is a willingness with providers to branch out and adapt their offering, but they need support and funding to make this happen.

“A key issue is that some students are staying too long in education and not enough are opting to come through the vocational system which then has a knock-on impact on the labour pool available. There will always be a place for degrees but the continuous emphasis on this path doesn’t support our members who are struggling to staff their factory floors. We believe that if young people had the opportunity to interact with the workplace at an earlier stage, then and in a more meaningful way then they would see more of the opportunities available to them.

“Another challenge is the STEM issue, especially for females. Not enough is being done to attract young women into these roles and this would go some way to plugging the gaps many firms are currently experiencing. The evolution of the current skills system has the power and potential to address this and must also be designed to confront the lack of digital skills. A company cannot grow unless the skill set of its workforce is moving at pace with its ambitions, so we need to see more on the job training, more work with academies – such as that of the IoD’s – and the development of shorter 6-8 week placement programmes to fill some of the immediate gaps.”

The Role of the Work Place

Each of the participants wholeheartedly agreed that a working environment where people are encouraged to be creative and support developing their own skillset would go a long way to opening up further opportunities. Employers have a responsibility to commit to upskilling and ensuring that they are preparing teams for the future of work. But this is only one piece of the puzzle.

Employers can’t act in a vacuum, and they are relying on a number of additional factors to also bring their ideas and investment to the table. Politicians and policy makers may not always want to take the lead but if they see shoots of progress, then they are more likely to take action.

“We see examples of this all the time in the third sector and across civic society where quite often it’s the people on the ground who are driving change”, explained Carol Fitzsimons. “Politicians will see you do the right thing, but rather than be bold to make the first move, will wait until such activity has been de-risked and follow behind with their support.”

“But they do have a significant role to play, especially when it comes to enacting the skills strategy” explains Jackie.

“The 10x strategy is ambitious and we welcome many of its recommendations but where is the progress and where is the funding. Delivery on these much-heralded outcomes appears to be blocked with some bits of the system approaching a code red failure.

“We need to see a universal careers service, and more credence given to apprenticeship schemes as a matter of urgency. The business community will actively support both of these initiatives and we are pushing for these to be implemented but there appear to be challenges that aren’t yet being overcome.

 What do we need to do next?

As the conversation drew to a close, each participant was asked for one recommendation they wish to see implemented in order to make immediate improvements. Below is a summation of the responses.

Jackie Henry: A flexible skills fund which both business and governments contribute to and work in partnership to decide where best to target this support in a way that’s also generous to smaller businesses.

Marie-Thérèse McGivern: An independent careers service established. This would begin to address some of the issues we’ve talked about today and give young people the practical advice they need to make important decisions with.

Carol Fitzsimons: Percentage of classroom time given to enrichment activity. This could include the pursuit and development of soft skills or something more structured like a work placement.

Dr. Lynsey Quinn: A genuine learn and live ethos. This should be applied right across the age spectrum and myth-bust the idea that learning is a youthful activity. Education and skills drive economic development, so we need to see high quality education. There should be a mix of academic and vocational pathways with a real emphasis on employability.

Mary Meehan: I’d opt for the Skills Net model which has been rolled out in ROI. Companies make a contribution and then go out in search of their own education providers which can be delivered on either a regional or cluster basis. I’d like to see companies take ownership of the apprenticeship levy with built in commitments that they will then have the flexibility to choose their own training model.

Kirsty McManus: We need a childcare strategy. So many issues are negatively impacted by this void. Also more respect and compassion for young people. So much of their education and or employment journey has been disrupted by the pandemic and we are still seeing the knock-on impact of this. Employers need to be cognizant of how much they have gone through and be sensitive to this.

Contact details: Dr. Lynsey Quinn, Senior Skills and Partnerships Manager, The Open University

E: [email protected].uk

W: www.open.ac.uk/northern-ireland

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