Today the UK Commission for Employment and Skills releases its latest findings for Northern Ireland from the Employer Skills Survey. The results highlight the magnitude of the problem that the Northern Ireland economy still faces. As the Northern Ireland Adviser for Employment and Skills I’m very concerned that employers are not doing enough to ensure a return to sustainable growth.. One way to do this is for employers to make better use of the skills of their staff. However, the results from the survey reveal that far too few employers are doing this.
Half of employers in Northern Ireland admit to having staff that have skills and qualifications that they aren’t using. This means that a fifth of the workforce are not able to make use of their full potential. Our research shows that in Belfast a staggering quarter of employees have underutilised skills and one in four employees working in health and social care are over-qualified for their work. This shows that employers have a goldmine of talent at their fingertips but are simply not making the most of it.
In my construction business it’s vital that we make the most of all of the skills my employees possess. It’s good for them and it’s good for me. Not doing so is bad for everyone. For the employee, skills can be lost through lack of use. For the employer, it can lead to a demotivated workforce and is a missed opportunity for us to raise our ambitions.
On the flipside, 14 per cent of employers say that they have employees that don’t have the skills they need. This is lower than the other devolved nations. In Scotland 19 per cent have skills gaps and 16 per cent do in Wales.
Looked at on its own this could be seen as a positive. However, a lack of skills gaps plus a high number of people whose skills aren’t used fully suggests that there are a lot of employers who aren’t trying to make the most of their workforce. It’s important that employers are aware of the skills of their workforce and aware of areas where they need to make improvements and upskill their staff.
One way to do this for employers to provide training for their employees. The survey has a wealth of data on this topic and, again, it’s a very mixed picture. The proportion of the workforce receiving training has increased from 56 per cent to 59 per cent. This is an encouraging trend, but once again Northern Ireland falls behind here. Across the UK 62 per cent of the workforce received training. Only 63 per cent of employers in Northern Ireland actually provide training for their staff. In manufacturing, a key growth area this figure is as low as 58 per cent.
The survey also looks at employers’ recruitment. Again, there are worrying signs here. Unlike the rest of the UK which has seen an increase in recruitment, the number of vacancies in Northern Ireland has fallen by 17 per cent. This means that there were 3,000 fewer vacancies in 2013 than there were in 2011. However, more recent research from the Northern Ireland Centre for Economic Policy does suggest that there has been recent growth in the labour market. What is clear, however, is that the economic recovery and increase employer confidence has been slower to reach Northern Ireland than it has the rest of the UK. This raises questions about the sustainability of growth in Northern Ireland and what employers can do to help ensure it happens.
Adopting high performance working practices is an option. High performance practices are ways that businesses can conduct their affairs and manage their people in a way that makes the most of what they’ve got. This can include anything from employee consultations to simply providing training. Across the UK, 12 per cent of employers can be considered as high performance working. In Northern Ireland it is only 8 per cent. Were more employers in Northern Ireland to adopt high performance working practices then this would help to make better use of the skills of their staff.
We all want to sustainable growth return to Northern Ireland. However, we need employers to raise their ambitions and to make better use of the skills of their existing workforce. By doing this employers in Northern Ireland can help us to ensure that we have a return to sustained recovery.