Let's give our ICT sector the recognition it deserves
Information and communications technology should be seen as a career on a par with medicine or law, says Stephen Farry
Northern Ireland already has a strong footprint in information and communications technology, with almost 17,000 people employed in the sector.
We have a number of excellent indigenous companies and are a significant location for foreign direct investment.
Only this week, Chicago Mercantile Exchange confirmed its plans to establish a new technology development and support centre in Belfast, with the creation of up to 100 jobs.
Within this sector, the average gross value added per job is £57,000 per annum and wages are one-third above the private sector average.
Indeed, it has not only survived the recession, but continued to grow. In particular, the computing sector, such as software development, has shown strong growth.
Recently, I launched a piece of research into the future skill requirements of our economy in the event of a lower rate of corporation tax.
This indicated that our growth potential in the ICT sector would accelerate, with the potential to create 10,000 further jobs between now and 2030. The Northern Ireland Economic Strategy sets out a vision to both rebuild and rebalance our economy to ensure that it is modern, knowledge intensive and export driven. The ICT sector is a key component of this drive.
It also makes it clear that having a workforce equipped with the skills needed by business is necessary for us to achieve this. This is the core purpose of my department's skills strategy.
In recognition of the importance of the ICT sector, I convened and chaired an ICT working group, bringing together government, business, and our local colleges and universities.
The ICT action plan has been launched and is on my department's website: www.delni.gov.uk.
It sets out the actions to be taken forward collaboratively between government, industry and education to plan effectively for the future.
These actions fall under three themes. A skills provision theme sets out how we will address critical skills requirements and encourage the uptake of relevant courses in our schools, further education colleges and universities, as well as utilise alternative routes into the sector, such as ICT apprenticeships.
My department will also explore an assistance programme for small and medium enterprises to facilitate them in offering bursaries, scholarships, internships, apprenticeships and/or placements to students on approved courses. Universities will consider ways to incentivise the uptake of related subjects.
A sector attractiveness theme sets out how we will encourage individuals to choose relevant courses and to address the current gender imbalance within the industry.
My department, along with Invest NI and the e-skills UK Employer Board, will build upon the Bring IT On campaign and enhance the communication of key messages to new target audiences. Measures to address the gender imbalance will also be included, such as e-skills UK continuing to deliver Computer Clubs 4 Girls.
The provision of careers advice is important in ensuring people are aware of the opportunities in the ICT sector and in creating a culture where ICT is seen as a profession on a par with medicine, or the law.
The actions within the co-ordination and communication theme of the plan will provide a framework for a dialogue between the various stakeholders to ensure that future issues are proactively addressed.
Notably, employers will work with Invest NI to establish an industry-led ICT collaborative network to gain a better understanding between industry and education.
David Mawhinney, chair of the e-skills UK Employer Board, has been actively engaged in representing the skills needs of the sector.
We agree on the importance of the full delivery of this action plan if we are to achieve the vision of establishing Northern Ireland as a worldwide centre of ICT excellence.