A major new Government-led scheme could be set up in Northern Ireland to help tens of thousands of people losing their jobs amid the Covid-19 crisis retrain and find new employment.
A Stormont-led 'work ready' employment service would work in addition to the existing Jobs and Benefits schemes, but focus on expertise to supplement that with specialist areas or the ability to "ramp up and down" when needed, Ulster Business revealed.
The scheme is being proposed by the Department for Communities.
It is also warning that unemployment levels, while already at record highs, are "likely to increase when government support tapers off".
It is being designed to help those who have lost their jobs, but are ready to start work in a similar or entirely different area of employment.
As part of an early market consultation, pre-tender, it says a "large number of work ready people on the lower end of the skills spectrum may become unemployed".
It also says it is aimed at helping vulnerable people, such as those with health conditions, ex-offenders, former carers, for example, to find new roles.
And it is looking at those recently unemployed people who "will become economically inactive with new or exacerbated health conditions especially mental health conditions".
The early proposal says that "existing long term unemployed, economically inactive and disabled people will face greater labour market competition from recently unemployed people" and adds that "young people exiting education or training run the risk of longer term scarring".
A market consultation is also being carried out with those who could potentially be involved in the scheme and procurement options include a 'multi-supplier' framework agreement, a 'one-stop-shop' single contract for specific regions, or a contract for services right across all council areas. The document says: "As part of a move across government in Northern Ireland to respond to the impacts of Covid-19 outbreak and the potential significant rise in unemployment, the Department for Communities has initiated a project to assess the feasibility and benefits of establishing a 'work ready' employment services contract to help people who may have lost their job."
The Department for Communities says that the purpose of the market consultation exercise is "to gain an understanding of the current capability and capacity to deliver Work Ready Employment Services throughout Northern Ireland as well as understand the latest developments and innovations in the delivery of these services utilising a range of channels".
The consultation is now open and closes on July 16.
As many as 40,000 furloughed workers here could face unemployment when the Government's job retention scheme expires, it has been claimed.
Around 211,700 people are enrolled on the emergency scheme, which enables companies to keep their workers on the payroll despite a catastrophic drop in business due to Covid-19.
Senior economist Gareth Hetherington, director of the Ulster University economic policy centre, said that it is estimated 10% to 20% of furloughed workers would ultimately end up unemployed.