Why social sciences won't help Northern Ireland fill the skills gap
The newly published 'skills barometer' for Northern Ireland repeats the long-standing message that, if our economy is to prosper, the current education and training systems for the next generation are leaving too many unprepared for opportunities that can be expected.
The professionals at the Economic Policy Centre (EPC) of the Ulster University have calibrated the barometer. Each year not enough of the new jobseekers are adequately prepared in terms of skills, qualifications and preparation for work, when allowance is made for jobs to be filled by the planned growth of the economy (9,100 each year) and the filling of jobs that fall vacant as people retire or emigrate (20,200 each year).
The barometer model points to employment increasing to 918,400 by 2025, based on the expectation that Northern Ireland would catch up with the performance of the UK economy by reducing the gap in economic activity rates and unemployment. This would mean a (net) increase in employment of 87,000 people.
To assess the skills gap, the EPC formulated a model of what the regional economy would look like if the economy eliminated the main macro-differences with Great Britain. From here, it was a short step to deriving a model linking the job forecasts to the implications for desirable qualifications and skills.
If the economy is successful, then there could be an under-supply of nearly 4,000 qualified employees each year.
The EPC has concluded that a large part of the under-supply relates to vocational and professional skills in occupations where the further education colleges should have a major role.
The assessment points to an under-supply each year of nearly 600 graduates with primary degrees from the universities. The main under-supply gaps are found in 1,400 each year who might have level 4-5 qualifications and just under 2,000 each year for whom a level 3 qualification would be appropriate. At the wrong end of this hierarchy there is an oversupply of over 300 people whose qualifications fall below level 2.
These estimates come with two warnings. First, they are only estimates and they depend on the variability of outcomes from this type of economic modelling. Second, while numbers are quoted here to the nearest 100, effectively they represent an order of magnitude, not scientifically reliable precise numbers.
Despite the caution about numerical precision, the EPC has served its most valuable purpose in taking the assessment the further step, to offer conclusions on where the gaps lie in occupational terms, as well as the generic level of skills and qualification.
For graduates with degrees the spectrum of over and under-supply is stark. The continuing shortages are largest in home grown supplies of STEM graduates, particularly in maths and computer science, and engineering and technology. The potential surpluses are in occupations that have a reliance on the public sector. Social studies graduates are expected to be in over-supply.
The conclusions emerging from the occupational analysis of intermediate or medium skill levels 4 & 5, repeats the emphasis on STEM subjects. Engineering, manufacturing, science and maths are at greatest risk of under-supply.
The skills barometer offers a series of quantified benchmarks. It gives guidance to the Minister of Employment and Learning Stephen Farry in setting objectives for a more ambitious skills, qualifications and higher apprenticeship programmes. Governing bodies for the FE colleges should be expected to report how their curricula are responding. The barometer sets targets. It is at risk of being over-ambitious but that would be an invalid excuse for non-delivery. Young people preparing for the world of work deserve to be equipped for better jobs which, if not available at home, would be a passport to success elsewhere.
Better to be qualified to do better wherever opportunity exists, than be unqualified and living a poorer lifestyle.