Lack of trainees leave Northern Ireland factories facing skills shortage
Manufacturing firms in Northern Ireland have said a lack of young people opting for vocational skills has left their plants short-handed.
They were speaking as the Department for Employment and Learning launched a new programme to encourage welding skills.
A rise in the number of teens choosing to go straight from school to third-level education has left a gap in factories across the region, according to Manufacturing NI.
Welders and hydraulic and mechanical engineers are among the jobs taking the biggest hit, and as companies secure bigger contracts they do not have the workforce to back up the potential business.
Stephen Kelly from Manufacturing Northern Ireland said: "Companies here are growing very quickly, so the demand is increasing.
"There's also a view from parents and pupils, and even some schools, that third-level education is the best route to a career.
"But the reality is that there are good skilled jobs in manufacturing facilities that could present the best option in terms of well paid, sustainable jobs."
With local companies on the lookout for capable workers, the shortage across the region means many have had to search further afield, with increasing numbers of staff recruited from the EU.
While encouraging young people to go down the vocational career route ensures companies can meet the demand on the order book, it also could put some extra cash in the employee's pockets.
"For young people to leave school and go into a job, they would start their career quickly and wouldn't be burdened with thousands of pounds of debt," Mr Kelly said. "We still need people with an academic background, but the manufacturing industry provides job opportunities for people with a range of skills."
A government scheme gets under way later this month to boost the number of welders in Northern Ireland.
Around 10 young people will be put through classes at the Northern Regional College, before moving on to MDF Engineering in Antrim, or its sister company, Magherafelt-based firm SDC Trailers.
Jane Millar from SDC said the initiative has come at the right time for their developing company.
"We've identified a real skills shortage for many years with experienced welders," she said.
"As a company, we've experienced growth and it has been difficult to keep up with that requirement.
"We employ 100 welders now, but just a few years ago it was only 30. Every company in Northern Ireland will have noticed a drop in the number of welders. There are just fewer young people going down that route."
The qualified welders will then be guaranteed a job provided they pass their exams after the intensive eight-week classes and four-week placement.
The scheme falls under the Department for Employment and Learning's Assured Skills initiative. Minister Stephen Farry said: "This new academy will help address these skills needs for both SDC and MDF and is an excellent example of collaborative working."