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A strong economy will only STEM from better training

Sir Reg Empey, Minister for Employment and Learning, faces big challenges in strengthening his skills, training and qualifications agenda.

Unless there are more people with the skills and capacity to drive an economy with higher value added outputs, the productivity gap, compared to other areas, will remain.

This will also call for better joined-up government policy with the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment (DETI) and the Department of Education.

A critical feature will be a re-skilling programme for people of a working age. Northern Ireland needs to ensure more people gain better vocational and academic skills to support an advancing knowledge-based economy and address the degree of underachievement of many, in terms of essential educational standards of literacy and numeracy (where the failure of the Department of Education and current schools programmes must be acknowledged).

If the ambitions of ministerial speeches, consultants' reports and an excessive network of advisory bodies were all translated into operational actions, the problem would have been solved long ago.

Some of the consultancy studies are professional models completed to high standards.

The doubt is about the capacity to move from useful professional studies into an ambitious operational plan. Creating an effective skills and training operational plan is not easy. Nevertheless, if the difficulties are identified, then there can be an explicit consideration of solutions.

The search for operational ideas needs to consider the motivation and demands of young people joining the working population, the pattern of employment being offered by today's employers, and the types of employment that will emerge if the local economy develops successfully.

How are the training and skills needs of future years to be anticipated and how are more people to be encouraged to take these options?

The lessons of the last decade show the need for more people with improved ICT skills. Recent evidence is that more people with qualifications in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects will be a critical asset.

There are no certainties, but there is enough evidence to merit significant expansion of ICT and STEM training. Careers advice is a critical component. If pupils are not motivated into subject areas such as STEM and ICT in school, then there will be a continuing decline in further or higher education. The evidence on the improvement in the number of people gaining higher and more relevant skills is not reassuring. There are four key critical strands:

* The number of ICT and STEM enrolments is static

* There are no published plans for increases in university provision in these subjects

* The plans of FE Colleges do not include firm targets to increase enrolments in these areas

* The agenda of the Workplace Development Forums needs to be broadened to consider the skill needs, not only of 2010 but also those of 2015-2020.

Sir Reg Empey (left) needs to lead more ambitious operational and cross departmental planning.

He also needs a reshaped (and larger) budget.