John Simpson: How to prepare graduates for a changing job market
By international standards, a high proportion of young people over 18 here go on to university. Since Northern Ireland needs to develop a labour force ready to deliver on higher skills and take up jobs calling for knowledge economy expertise, a larger flow from an increasing proportion of the upcoming generation taking advantage of third-level education should make a helpful contribution.
Although Northern Ireland's third-level education system is apparently developing in a sensible direction, the benefits of greater numbers gaining third-level qualifications have, in some respects, been more modest than might be wished.
The results need to be assessed by taking account of some features that take away from the larger objectives.
First, Northern Ireland is a major exporter of talent. Nearly a third of local university students enrol to study outside Northern Ireland. They take advantage of the reputations of non-local universities
That degree of student mobility is, for individuals, a healthy career development chain. At the same time, home-based career opportunities do fail to capture some bright people.
Second, and more worrying, there is a concern that, for a mixture of reasons, the two local universities are offering - and local students are taking - too few course choices with places for advancing skills and knowledge economy expertise to match the commercial and public service demands of this century.
In further analysis, this feature should be examined to ask if university studies could do more to prepare young graduates for the world of work, with an emphasis on initiative-taking, reliability and progressively advancing the interests and competence of their employers.
The combination of advanced knowledge and good personal motivation would be a unique selling point.
In this jobs market, Northern Ireland could do more to enhance the prospects for the economy by developing to draw more support from the next generation.
In the milieu of ambitious employers and aspirant employees, there is an imperfect marketplace. Employers claim that it is difficult to recruit adequately prepared employees, and young graduates are searching for jobs relying on qualifications often drawn from an over-constrained taught environment.
To its credit, the Department for the Economy has sponsored a local initiative to help to bridge some of the gaps. A series of interventions, structured around the theme of assured skills, is now a frequently recurring opportunity. In the grandly titled series of Assured Skills Academies, over the past seven years more than 1,000 people have been engaged in 32 pre-employment projects.
The academies usually recruit graduates with at least a 2:2 honours degree, offer a tailored introduction to different types of jobs, support the students with a basic financial allowance and, critically, ensure that successful students are interviewed with a prospect of an offer of employment.
In support of this concept, a gap in the job market is being eased. In possible criticism, there are questions about why so many young graduates, fresh with degrees, are not well enough equipped to be recruited directly by progressive employers.
Assured Skills Academies are popular with employers as an aid to successful recruitment. Their value lies in enhancing good selection and delivering key employment preparation. The cost to the Government is over £2.3m per annum.
For some young graduates, these academies become a bridge between initially naive expectations and an understanding of real jobs.
The scope of academies has relied heavily on the role of curriculum hubs in each of the six further education colleges.
Each college is now a nominated centre for defined occupational areas, such as engineering and advanced manufacturing at South West College, and digital ICT skills, along with hospitality and tourism, at Belfast Metropolitan College.
The academies provide induction processes in a short, intensive period. This is helping to ease serious local recruitment problems. However, that does not take away from the need to question the relevance for useful employment of some degree courses. University-level advanced apprenticeships are still awaited.