Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

Manufacturing sector is a vital component to avoid a brain drain

Are we facing a new brain drain from the North West and other parts of Northern Ireland? I fear that we may be.

It could have a profound impact on an economy which we are all focused on transforming into one driven by knowledge and innovation.

When one hears of the problems currently being experienced by this year’s new graduates, it’s hard to think otherwise. Northern Ireland simply cannot afford to lose many hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of very talented young people.

Few of the graduates I spoke to during the recent University of Ulster graduation ceremony had definite offers of employment here. While they acknowledged that their prospects abroad were also likely to be constrained because the economic downturn is impacting virtually every corner of the globe, nevertheless, a number were prepared to ‘take their chances’ in bigger markets likely to recover faster than Northern Ireland.

As the Northern Ireland Adviser on Employment and Skills, I am keen to encourage government and the private sector to take meaningful steps to address this potentially very serious problem.

As a community, we need to ensure that the knowledge, skills and talents of our graduates are more effectively harnessed and deployed to help enhance our productivity and overall competitiveness.

If more of our smaller companies, particularly manufacturers, could be encouraged to offer worthwhile opportunities to graduates and move closer to the universities and colleges, I believe they could become much more competitive and successful in global markets. Higher and further education institutions have also got to engage with industry, especially manufacturing, to a much greater extent.

Significantly, the US is currently debating how best to strengthen competitiveness.

The focus there is switching to manufacturing and is less focused on services and the outsourcing of production.

This is more than just a job protection issue; it’s a recognition that manufacturing at home helps to drive innovation, new ideas for processes and product development.

There are lessons here for Northern Ireland. Our manufacturing base has been badly affected by the current downturn, which will, inevitably, inhibit efforts to promote the uptake and integration of advanced manufacturing technologies.

We need to look closely at measures in areas such as skills that will help smaller manufacturers, the backbone of the local economy, to become more productive and better able to compete globally. Substantial opportunities are developing for companies in the so-called ‘green’ industries, renewables, waste management and pollution amelioration.

Employment and skills are fundamental to our economy's success, particularly at this critical time. Without a skilled and thriving workforce, we cannot compete in national and international markets.

We need more employers to recognise how critical higher level skills — degree and diploma standards — are to their success.

Bill McGinnis, who is from Magherafelt, is Northern Ireland adviser on Employment and Skills and the Northern Ireland Commissioner on the UK Commission on Employment and Skills. He is also chairman of the Northern Ireland Exporters Association

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