Belfast Telegraph

Playing Russian roulette with all our livelihoods

Executive plans to scrap the Department of Employment and Learning put narrow political interests ahead of future prosperity, writes Stephen Farry

The current Department for Employment and Learning is a coherent organisation based around a unified agenda of promoting and addressing the skill needs of the people of Northern Ireland and helping them to find and sustain employment.

The development of skills is a key driver of economic change. The critical importance of investment in skills has been recognised in the Executive's draft economic strategy and is central to the 2030 vision of an economy "characterised by a sustainable and growing private sector".

Our people and their skills and attributes are one of the key assets that we have. We are now in an even more competitive global economy, with the rise of new economies in Asia and Latin America and the financial difficulties in North America and Western Europe.

Increasingly, we have to rely on our investment in skills to remain competitive. The capacity to compete purely on low costs is being rapidly eroded.

Over the next few years, the skills requirements of the economy will change radically. We will need many more people educated to higher levels, with a particular emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) and management and leadership skills.

At the same time, we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. Our current levels of unemployment - including youth unemployment - represent a major untapped resource.

Supporting people back to work through the provision of skills is vital in addressing social and economic issues. This is particularly acute in the light of the Westminster-based welfare reform agenda. The challenge to up-skill is even more acute given that 80% of the 2020 workforce is already in employment.

The potential onset of lower corporation tax will bring particular skills needs as the nature of business investment changes. I have commissioned research to ensure that our skills and training sector will be ready. We cannot allow skills gaps, or mismatches, to emerge.

Already it is clear that our skills offering must become more flexible to the rapidly changing needs of employers. This is perhaps most evident in the Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) sector, but applies across many of our key growth industries, including agri-food.

I recently had the opportunity to showcase what Northern Ireland is doing on skills to an international audience of business leaders in Washington DC. It is encouraging to see we are getting many things right and that others want to learn from us.

Given devolution and the relative size of our society, we have the opportunity to innovate and to adopt a hands-on approach with local businesses and investors alike. There is no room for complacency; we must work twice as hard on getting it right on skills to remain competitive.

DEL is much more than the sum of its parts. There is a synergy across everything it does based around skills. This applies to higher education, where there is a need for a greater emphasis on applied research and knowledge transfer meeting business needs and for graduates to be 'work-ready'.

Already, further education is critical to delivering the skills needs of the economy, including apprenticeships, foundation degrees and bespoke business training. The employment service increasingly focuses on improving people's employability skills.

Unfortunately, over the last years and months, we have suffered from redundancies across a number of sectors, including construction, retail and banking.

Providing people who find themselves out of work with the skills they require to re-enter, often in different sectors, requires all aspects of provision - the employment service and our colleges and universities - to work together.

At present, there is a seamless interaction between the different elements within the department; something that I have been working hard to achieve. Much of this synergy would be lost in the event that DEL was broken up.

The Alliance Party has long advocated a rationalisation of departments to provide joined-up, streamlined and efficient government.

In our 2011 Assembly manifesto, we called for a reduction from 12 departments to eight. One of these would have included a new Department of the Economy, merging the existing Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) with DEL.

There is a world of difference between this and dividing up DEL between DETI and the Department of Education.

The independent review of economic policy did recommend a single Department of the Economy, but some people are quite wrong to suggest it advocated the abolition of DEL.

Rather, it recommended its merger into something even greater than the sum of the parts.

It is important that politicians take forward the reform agenda for the right reasons, with the interest of the economy uppermost, rather than taking arbitrary decisions for the sake of short-term political expediency.

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