A carefully targeted skills initiative, offering an important bridge between jobs and unemployed graduates, has been delivered successfully in 14 recent training modules. Nearly 300 young people have qualified for places in a training academy and a high proportion have gone on to be selected for employment.
Credit for the development of the concept of the academies goes to a range of employers and employers' associations using specialist staff from Belfast Metropolitan College and the South East Regional College. The academies are helped with funding from the Assured Skills programme of the Department of Employment and Learning.
As incoming investors assess the attraction of local locations, it has been recognised that new or expanding employers can be helped by creating a recruitment and initial training mechanism to link the new jobs with the best available potential employees.
Out of this assessment the concept of training academies was born. The recent experience confirms that training academies can form an important niche to help new employers, make potential employees better prepared and contribute to reducing unemployment.
The academies scheme is successfully tackling the problem that too many young graduates, who have gained educational qualifications, are not sufficiently orientated to the needs of employment in jobs calling for abilities in numeracy and IT. Many of the academies offer basic training to offset this deficiency in a placement - either in an educational setting such as 'e3' (part of Belfast Met) or with an employer. The transition from student to productive employee is not always easy, particularly in jobs looking for numeracy and IT skills. Expectations from employers and potential employees can differ. Too often graduates are poorly adjusted to the specific demands of the workplace.
Some employers (understandably) criticise young graduates who have unrealistic expectations of their role, status and work attitudes. New employees may not appreciate that whilst academic qualifications are a useful achievement, there is an even greater challenge in becoming a useful employee tackling the repetitive parts of a job in a normal organisation.
Added to the mix of job expectations and preparation, there is an increasing number of graduate level jobs that call for numerical abilities. Whether in specialist financial services or in information technology, employees with numerical adaptability are in short supply. The training academies concept is unique to Northern Ireland. Whilst the content of each training course varies, the common elements are to select applicants who best meet the requirements of potential employers and then design a syllabus for a period of pre-employment training. The pre-employment training leads into a paid work placement where the trainee earns a training allowance. At the end of the course, trainees are usually offered an interview for a possible contract of employment.
In the recent past, over 80% of trainees have been offered employment.
Whilst the training academies reflect a range of occupations, a majority of the courses are IT related including four courses designed to prepare employees with the Software Testing Qualifications Board foundation certificate and two others more advanced for potential Software Developers. Another course dealt with the theme of Cloud Computing.
Several commercial organisations have used the concept of a training academy for their own development needs. PWC, Deloitte, FinTru and Alexander Mann Solutions have each committed to a cohort of training.
The wider application of the academy concept has also been tested in an engineering context, linked to Magellan Aerospace, and more generically to a scheme to assist in graduate involvement in export sales and marketing supported by a small group of businesses.
The academies projects have helped to bridge a gap. Numeracy and IT jobs were available and the academies have proved a workable recruitment and selection mechanism.
This also raises questions about the adequacy of the preparation for employment in some graduate courses. That is an unfinished issue for the third level education providers.
SSE Airtricity Energy Supply (NI) is a wholly owned subsidiary of SSE Renewables Group UK. The company is a major supplier to domestic households and many commercial businesses. The company operates in Northern Ireland only as a supply company to local customers, directly to electricity users and indirectly to gas users through its subsidiary SSE Airtricity Gas Supply. The Gas Supply business was purchased from Phoenix Supply in June 2012 for £19.1m. SSE Airtricity has grown rapidly from small beginnings in 2007-9, when it began business by selling renewable electricity supplies to a small number of customers. In the most recent financial year, turnover at £297m was 11% higher than a year earlier and over 90% higher than two years ago. The principal activity of the company is described as the purchase and sale of electricity generated from renewable energy. The electricity is purchased from other companies in the SSE group, as well as from third parties. Since the company is a large and growing distributor of electricity and natural gas, profit margins are largely determined by the achieved margins between purchase costs and retail prices. Since the company has built up market share by offering retail price advantages for customers, its success to date has relied on the ability to run a small, efficient (IT-led) organisation and combine this with successful wholesale purchasing arrangements. The emerging success of the company has allowed for the payment, drawing on accumulated reserves, of a dividend to the parent group of £15m in the most recent year. SSE Airtricity Energy has a small number of direct employees: 22 during 2013-14. However, this does not include the employees in its subsidiary, SSE Airtricity Gas.