Belfast Telegraph

Reap the benefits of green technology while it’s available

By Bill McGinnis

More than 100 smaller companies turned out recently at a seminar in Limavady to hear about business opportunities that are now developing strongly in the global renewable energy market.

I am sure that Invest NI, the event organiser, was impressed by the interest shown in the issue by businesses in the North West.

Some of the companies were also present at last week’s big All Energy 2009 exhibition and conference in Aberdeen and took part with Invest NI at Windpower 2009 in Chicago at the start of this month.

Green technology is an industry that offers substantial business opportunities in the North West and across Northern Ireland. What we need to do is focus resources on the skills that we need to become a cleantech centre of excellence.

Other regions are already gearing up to reap the business benefits beginning to flow from what is sometimes referred to as green economics. I want to see Northern Ireland benefit from this.

President Obama, for instance, has positioned environmental issues at the very pinnacle of his agenda by focusing on the creation of a clean energy infrastructure.

He plans a huge investment in education and skills to enhance the nation’s ability to compete for the high-wage, high-tech jobs — and to foster the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Among the challenging targets he has set is to transform the US economy by achieving the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

In Europe, mandatory carbon reduction emissions are now the norm. Nations increasingly have to develop the skills and knowledge that will enable them to do more with less.

China is also investing heavily in clean technologies and has emerged as the world’s largest producer of photovoltaic solar panels and probably the most important global market for wind turbines.

To enhance its reputation as leader in cleantech and sustainable development, China is also planning a Global Green Business Summit in Tianjin next month.

As the Northern Ireland Adviser on Employment and Skills and the local Commissioner on the UK Commission on Employment and Skills, I have a role in helping local companies to embrace green and other technologies for greater competitive advantage.

This involves working with governments, existing skills bodies and individual companies to ensure sufficient funding is accessible and efficient structures are in place to support the development of the high-tech expertise required for innovative products, services and overall know-how that will determine whether businesses here are able to seize the opportunities that will grow as the global economy pulls out of the current recession.

I have also been heartened by evidence that many employers are recognising increasingly that investing in the skills of their employees is essential for success. My objective is to make it easier for them to take the steps to enhance skills in areas such as cleantech throughout their business.

While the US is planning such a massive push on education and skills, the challenge facing the UK was indicated in a recent UKCES report that highlighted that outputs from our education and training system are falling well behind those of our main competitors.

For instance, the UK is 17th in the OCED for people with few or no qualifications; 20th in terms of intermediate skills; and 11th on higher-level skills.

In Northern Ireland there has been an encouraging increase in qualifications at the higher-level skills over the last decade. But we still lag well behind the UK and have a great many more adults with no qualifications whatsoever.

It’s hardly surprising then that productivity here stands stubbornly at only 80% of the UK level.

And UK productivity levels are 25 percentage points below the US. We should also be concerned by evidence that this recession, is impacting on a greater range of professional occupations.

Bill McGinnis, who is from Magherafelt, is Northern Ireland adviser on employment and skills, Northern Ireland Commissioner to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills and chairman of the Northern Ireland Exporters Association.

Belfast Telegraph