Northern Ireland has gone some way to creating a workforce that is better qualified, or more appropriately skilled, to facilitate increased productivity and lead to improved living standards.
However, if the gap compared to the overall UK performance is to be closed, vigorous efforts are needed.
The Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) has received a study by Oxford Economics (OE), led by Northern Ireland-based economist Neil Gibson, on future skill needs in Northern Ireland.
Although this one study cannot be expected to offer a detailed review of all skills and qualifications, it makes an impressive start, using compelling economic analysis.
This study shows that our skills infrastructure is inadequate for an advancing economy.
If Northern Ireland needs to invest in transport communications, the investment strategy prioritises the improvements needed.
If enhanced energy networks are needed, pressure is applied to enhance the electricity grid or extend the natural gas network.
Enhancing the skills infrastructure is just as critical (if not more so) as implementing strategic investments in physical infrastructure. DEL must now respond to this OE study which shows that, to enhance people’s earning power and improve competitiveness, Northern Ireland must have more ambitious policies.
More of the younger people entering the workforce should start with better qualifications and more adults should be given opportunities to obtain better skills.
Perhaps the most telling single piece of evidence is that, whereas in 1995, 35% of employees got jobs having no significant qualifications, by 2010 this will have fallen to 28% and by 2020 will be down to 16%. If the local economy makes progress to catch up with, and match, the UK, the proportion in 2020 would be 12%.
The proportion of jobs for people with poor skills preparation is falling fast; so fast that over half of these jobs will not be in demand in 10 years time.
The OE study offers advice on two options. First, what enhanced qualifications would Northern Ireland need if the local workforce had comparable skills to those that exist across the UK.
Second, what enhanced qualifications and skills would be needed to catch up (and overtake) the productivity of the UK economy: an aspirational scenario.
For those who believe that Northern Ireland already has a well trained qualified workforce there is a reality correction. Compared to some other UK regions we do have a comparable endowment. Also, at the top of the qualifications table, we do quite well. However, overall there is a big deficit, particularly in vocational skills and further education qualifications.
Oxford Economics has grouped together people who hold primary degrees, post-graduate degrees, foundation degrees and certificates of higher education.
The jobs calling for these qualifications have been an increasing proportion of all jobs and it concludes “taking into consideration sectoral and occupational trends, and leaver and joiner flows, (the picture) is one of an increasingly ‘graduate hungry’ economy.”
Numerically, this comes to 49% of the net jobs requirement between 2009 and 2020.
Some of the central conclusions reached by OE are:
- There is an under-representation of graduates in agriculture, manufacturing, construction, retailing, hotels and catering
- Northern Ireland is some 50,000 managers and professionals short of the level that would be expected if NI had the UK average
- There is an over abundance of business and mass communications graduates
- There is a notable under-representation of creative arts & design, and STEM graduates. For the Minister, Sir Reg Empey, and policy makers, this sets out a serious problem.
The changes will not happen by themselves. Increased provision and incentivisation is urgent and will be expensive. Vocational and skills planning should now move into a much more managed framework.