Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Current complacent approach will not solve our skills deficit

Northern Ireland can only prosper if there is an adequate and increasing number of people with modern skills and those skills are then used. At present this is not delivered.

Businesses are currently able to find people to produce today’s goods. That points to a rough balance in the labour market. In contrast, if businesses (new or expanding) are to create better paid jobs, using higher skills, this can only happen if more people are adequately prepared for new jobs that need enhanced skills.

The skills deficit will not be avoided if Government and business continue with their current complacent approaches.

Of course, while the availability of skilled people is a critical requirement, that alone would need to be aligned with other factors.

Last week the Minister for Employment and Learning, Sir Reg Empey, addressed the 5th annual skills conference. Apart from the comments made by Sir Reg on the need for skills enhancement, there was no presentation on how his department plans to accelerate the skills agenda. There was no report on the achievements of recent years to increase the numbers of people gaining higher and further qualifications. Worryingly, there are no published targets for the years ahead.

Sir Reg chose to concentrate, in the only keynote speech from local officials, on another aspect of the productivity agenda: the need to improve the application of management and leadership skills in local businesses. What Sir Reg failed to do was give a clear commitment to accelerate, in advance of future developments, the supply side improvements to give more people opportunities to obtain advanced skills.

Debate about leadership and management skills is difficult for two reasons.

First, while there is alleged to be too poor a local level of leadership and management, reliable evidence on this deficiency is not easy to obtain. The judgments tend to be subjective. Taken to an extreme, the alleged deficiency can be presented as one reason why productivity here is 20% below the UK average.

Sir Reg quotes one study which estimates that poor management practice is costing the economy up to £300m each year. Then he avoids the main questions by suggesting that the key to better performance is to ensure that new skills are properly utilised by employers. Beware a touch of buck passing!

The productivity argument, in turn, hinges on whether we have an economic structure which is over dependent on low skill sectors, whether we have a tradition of under-performing employees, or whether we have poor leadership and management. Even if the latter is only part of the problem, it is a problem that is unwelcome.

The second reason why this is a difficult issue is that remedial actions are not easy to implement. Business managers do not readily admit that their managerial skills are inadequate. Even if they do accept some criticism, various excuses will be offered.

Management development is a classic example of ‘taking the horse to water, but the horse refusing to drink’.

Bill McGinnis, the official skills adviser to Sir Reg, last week suggested that the Department of Employment and Learning and Invest NI “should jointly review and streamline their leadership and management policies with a view to establishing a single coherent and simplified offer”.

This proposal attracts one serious reservation: it is too constrained. Alternatively, this topic ought to be a strength in the specialist schools in the Universities.

In a pointedly relevant inaugural lecture last week, the University of Ulster’s Professor Jackie McCoy offered at least a partial solution to the problems. Instead of offering business leaders a rigorous audit and measurement approach to assess their competence, the relationship should be one of a counsellor gaining the confidence of the owner to smuggle in improved processes and practices. As she succinctly put it, this can cause ‘the horse to want to drink’.

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