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Young people part of solution to downturn in Northern Ireland

Richard Kirk


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We need to offer young people apprenticeships in sectors that are growing. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

We need to offer young people apprenticeships in sectors that are growing. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

We need to offer young people apprenticeships in sectors that are growing. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

It was Harold Wilson who said "A week is a long time in politics". He coined the phrase in the run up to the 1964 election as a nod to the fast-changing nature of the political landscape.

However, his now famous adage alluded to something else - of positivity, that all was not lost, to hope for better.

Perhaps it is not inappropriate to quote Wilson at this time - he served twice as Prime Minister during one of the greatest periods of social and industrial change in the last century.

Just over half a century later, we find ourselves in a time of major upheaval for all of society, not least businesses, employers and young people.

Last week, the UK economy officially entered recession after tumbling by a record 20% in the second quarter. The statistics made sobering reading.

Then A-level results were announced and confusion ensued. Amid all the lengthy debate, discussion and personal stories it was clear that many businesses and young people shared much common ground: each has huge concerns about their future.

Ulster University's Economic Policy Centre (UUEPC) recently predicted that youth unemployment in Northern Ireland could rise to 26% by the end of 2020.

UUEPC has also stated that the economy could take up to five years to rebound while employment is set to take up to a decade to return to pre-COVID levels.

If these statistics become a reality, the implications would be profoundly impactful and deeply scarring for our 16-to-24 year olds. What can we do to address this?

Positive decisions are being made. On A-level results day Economy Minister Diane Dodds announced £17.2m funding to encourage employers to retain and recruit apprentices. While we are still to see the exact details involved, it is a welcome announcement for many employers

The employers we work with at Workplus, ranging from local SMEs to some of the world's multinationals, have already experienced the benefits of apprenticeships - fresh, enthusiastic new talent which can be trained and moulded to fit a company's exact needs.

I hope this funding will encourage many more business to explore this fresh approach to develop new talent to help them rebound from Covid-19.

In this economic crisis, we are at a decisive point in how we approach work and education. Do we just keep doing what we did, or can we make the development and application of skills more relevant, responsive and resilient than ever before?

An apprenticeship - which is based on a blend of on-the-job and off-the-job learning - delivers a better outcome for the individual, business and the economy.

For the individual, it's a job from the start, dedicated mentoring and support and continued education. For the business, it's about fresh talent, new ideas and productivity.

And for the economy, £34,000 of value-added per apprentice per annum, lower youth unemployment and an end to debt-fuelled education - a 2017 report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that 75% of graduates will never clear their debt.

The OECD Skills Strategy for Northern Ireland recently said: "To thrive in the world of tomorrow, people will need a stronger and more comprehensive set of skills".

An apprenticeship does so much more than full time education because it is embedding these skills that will benefit both individual and economy in the long-term. These strong foundational and transversal skills will make people more adaptable and resilient to changing skills demands.

Minister Dodds said last week: "The role of apprenticeships in our economic rebuilding cannot be over-stated. We need a skilled workforce to drive forward recovery."

I agree but would add, we can rebuild better. Rather than encouraging young people to remain in education with the hope of a job at the end, we need to offer them a greater number and variety of apprenticeships now, in sectors that are growing.

In doing so our young people will be part of the solution to bringing us out of recession, not the victims of it.

Richard Kirk is chief executive of Workplus, set up to help employers develop talent through apprenticeships

Belfast Telegraph