The information and communications technology (ICT) sector is crucial to our economy. It is the driving force of a globally competitive economy, underpinning innovation, competitiveness and long-term prosperity. Almost 17,000 people are employed in the sector with wages one third above the private sector average.
The ICT sector has not only survived the recession, it has continued to grow.
Invest NI, supported by the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL), has continued to facilitate the investment of new companies with ICT functions into Northern Ireland and assisted local companies to grow.
In order to meet the full potential for the growth of this valuable sector, there has to be a steady supply of the skilled people to meet demand.
Over the last year, DEL has been working with other departments, local businesses and local colleges and universities to see how we can help to address this challenge.
The ICT action plan sets out the actions we will be taking forward in collaboration with ICT businesses.
Three challenges have been identified: the need to increase the supply of people with the qualifications and experience the sector requires; how we make the industry a place where young people want to work; and how we improve communication in the sector so that skills issues are addressed.
While initiatives such as Belfast Metropolitan College's CoderDoJo are proving successful in inspiring young people to want to learn more about programming, we must do more to encourage young people to make relevant, informed choices at Key Stage 2 and 3 that take into account employment potential.
Up to date and relevant employer-informed careers advice, both from school-based careers teachers and my department's careers service, is vital.
CCEA, the examinations and assessment body, has also taken forward work to develop a new A-Level in software and systems development, which is recognised by the industry as a course with a curriculum of relevance to the ICT sector.
I have also launched a pilot higher-level apprenticeship in ICT. South West College will be delivering this innovative training with the aim of producing a mainstreamed higher apprenticeship in ICT.
While these initiatives within schools, colleges and universities will reap dividends in the future, we need people now. Therefore, we are also looking at ways in which we can train people with skills in other areas so that they have the skills to work in ICT.
My department has launched a second cohort of the software testers academy to train and employ individuals in local ICT companies. We have also worked with the Department for Finance and a number of employers to launch a public/private ICT apprenticeship pilot, which has seen 32 individuals employed in the sector.
Invest NI has also launched a capital markets programme with 19 participants from local ICT companies. Our universities have introduced postgraduate MSc courses aimed at non-IT graduates to encourage more individuals to consider a career in ICT.
Additionally, I have secured 1,200 science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) higher education places.
Real employer buy-in has been demonstrated through the collaborative work being taken forward with my department and Invest NI.
The e-skills UK Employer Board has also worked with Invest NI to establish an ICT collaborative network, which will enable local companies to make the most of global market opportunities in ICT.
Much progress has been made to deliver the commitments set out in the ICT action plan. We will continue to work towards full delivery of the plan in order to ensure that ICT sector growth is supported and benefits our economy as a whole.