Last month the UK Commission’s Chairman, Charlie Mayfield, joined me to call upon Northern Ireland’s employers to take control of the skills agenda. Like elsewhere in the UK, Northern Ireland is facing significant skills “potholes” that employers, if given the right opportunities, can begin to close.
The Northern Ireland report of the Employer Skills Survey, published on 9 October indicates the size and scale of the problem. The report reveals how some employers are struggling to fill vacancies because applicants lack the required skills. These skill shortage vacancies are having a serious impact on business’s bottom line, as well as their ability to innovate and develop new products. Smaller businesses in particular are struggling with hard to fill vacancies and the Belfast region has a higher concentration of skills shortage vacancies compared to other regions of the UK.
The report also reveals that levels of training have dropped back to pre-2005 levels, with around 63 per cent of employers training their staff. Yet investment in workforce training and development is essential if Northern Ireland is to thrive. What’s more, this investment needs to be evenly distributed across the entire workforce and should respond directly to the issues and gaps employers themselves have identified.
This is the time for employers to step up to the challenge. Only employers truly know which skills their business and broader sector is lacking. We must create the space for employers to work together within their supply chains, sectors or localities to develop the skills they need for productivity and growth. In order to secure long term competitiveness for Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, the relationship between employers and the state on skills needs to undergo a fundamental change to give employers genuine ownership of the vocational skills agenda.
One of the areas in which employers can act now to close these skill shortages is in the recruitment and training of young people. Starting your adult life without the prospect of work is bleak, and as just 28 per cent of employers in Northern Ireland have taken on a young person direct from education in the last two to three years, it is an issue we need to address now.
As Dr Stephen Farry (Minister for Employment and Learning) said: “We must invest in our young people's skills - our future depends on it.” Contrary to popular belief, most employers are pleased with the calibre of their new recruits; young people are ready and willing to work, they just need the opportunities.
The Department for Employment and Learning Northern Ireland announced its Youth Employment Scheme this summer. Work experience placements will be offered to 1,000 young people in Northern Ireland, expanding to 3,000 by in three years. Work experience is just one of the many ways in which employers across the UK can empower young people to get into, and progress in work. A youth policy doesn't have to be a written HR document: it can be anything from going into schools to give advice and interview tips to taking on apprentices, school leavers or graduates. Adopting a youth policy, big or small, helps employers begin to smooth out their skills potholes.
My challenge to you today is get involved! Give a helping hand to get young men and women on the employment ladder. As economic hardship stretches us all, it is time to be proactive and enterprising. Adopting a youth policy and equipping the future generation with the necessary skills to succeed in industry is one of the simplest ways employers can step up and take advantage of the talent on their doorstep.
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