Belfast Telegraph

Investing in people is the secret to success

The Economic Advisory Group says a cut in corporation tax could create 4,500 jobs a year. But a company's greatest asset will always be its workforce, says Martin Barnett

Northern Ireland needs - and deserves - real business incentives. It has become all-too-apparent that the current emphasis on reducing the rate of corporation tax in Northern Ireland from 28% to 12.5% is detracting from another serious issue: namely that more and more businesses are failing - this despite the best, often herculean, efforts of business owners and their teams.

With the recent publication of the Economic Advisory Group paper on The Impact of Reducing Corporation Tax on the Northern Ireland Economy, there are an increasing number of business people, as well as commentators, who argue for the value of lowering the level of corporation tax - especially for those businesses competing with others in the Republic who enjoy the lower rate. They may well have a valid point, but, on its own, it cannot begin to address Northern Ireland's economic woes.

It appears that everyone is agreed on the vision set out for Northern Ireland - namely providing 'a sustainable and growing private sector, with a highly-skilled, flexible workforce, working in high-productivity, innovative firms which compete in global markets'.

The Economic Advisory Group's offer of the revised wording for the Northern Ireland Executive's economic strategy document Encouraging Enterprise and Business Growth is sound.

The problem is that many of the actions being proposed by the Executive don't match their stated intent.

Reducing corporation tax alone will not deliver the necessary changes needed to achieve this objective for Northern Ireland.

The province's workforce is already a surprisingly flexible body of incredibly dedicated people, with a fund of countless examples of retraining and re-education.

What is currently lacking from this set-up is the ability to achieve a highly-skilled workforce which is sustainable and yet sufficiently inflexible that they don't depart for more attractive horizons, as has often been the case in the past.

Reducing the rate of corporation tax alone will not achieve this. It will merely free up some desperately needed cash, which serves only as a short-term breathing space.

As for attracting additional international investment, this may certainly be true, but what of our long-term relationship with our closest markets within Europe?

Furthermore, without the necessary skilled workforce, we will merely have a repeat of recent farces where companies relocate to Northern Ireland, receive thousands of pounds in grants for every single person they employ - then bring pretty much every single employee with them.

The Economic Advisory Group is, of course, correct in its assertion that Northern Ireland must invest in the improvement of its workforce. One excellent incentive to do so would be to link any reduction in corporation tax to the development of any business's key asset: its people.

This would include business-growth skills for business owners and their teams - including marketing, sales, recruitment and the proper structuring of businesses - as well as the development of critical leadership skills.

This way, we achieve what we have set out to do in our vision statement.

It also means that the entire business benefits from any injection of money during such difficult economic times.

The economy has a chance at real growth through the achievement of those objectives and, with a revitalised economy, all businesses, small and large, at last have a real chance to achieve their potential. Once these circumstances have been realised, all business owners will benefit far more than a mere reduction in direct taxation can ever deliver in isolation.

The Economic Advisory Group's paper, The Impact of Reducing Corporation Tax on the Northern Ireland Economy, also makes reference to the idea of 'embedding business in the local education structures'.

This is an altogether excellent point and it is an idea that deserves far greater import than it is currently afforded.

Providing sound business advice and training - as well as the fundamentals of leadership - at an early stage is critical to the success of Northern Ireland's economy, not least in educating young people that business is a skill which can be learned.

Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster has said a decision on devolving tax powers could be made before the end of the year. But we do not have to wait for an announcement from the Prime Minister to start this process.

At barnett-amp;fieldhouse, for example, we have already approached a number of schools and we are provisionally pencilled in to deliver that very education and training in the new school year starting September.

What we now need is recognition that such training belongs in the curriculum.

We deliver such education free of charge, as part of our effort to support our community and improve the economy upon which we all so heavily rely.

We would encourage other business leaders to do the same.

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