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Outlook 2021: Angela McGowan - It's going to be a year of adjustment


Angela McGowan

Angela McGowan

Angela McGowan

Company chiefs across Northern Ireland have probably never faced a more challenging year than 2020.

So, in some regards, 2021 brings with it an air of optimism and sense of a fresh start. Although the pandemic may not have ended; companies have found ways to keep employees and customers safe and will be hoping for business continuity as the economy learns to live with Covid-19.

At the time of writing, we have not yet seen that much awaited (and promised) UK-EU trade deal. Hopefully by January 2021 the UK will have settled on a new trading relationship with our neighbours in Europe and business will have more information on the direction of travel. By just knowing what is expected of them in terms of tariffs, quotas and trading arrangements, firms can start to properly plan and invest. But there is no doubt that in quarter one and quarter two in 2021, they will be very busy adjusting to the new normal. Getting IT systems changed, adapting to a new administrative burden not faced before and if necessary, re-adjusting supply chains or capital allocations.

After a sharp economic contraction in 2020, the Northern Ireland economy is expected to see growth of around 7% in 2021. But probably the most striking thing for the economy this year will be the scale of adjustment.

For many companies preparations are underway. But for all firms, 2021 will be a year of changing how they do business, how they reach out to customers, how they make the most of AI and machine learning and how they adopt new digital solutions. And of course, we cannot forget that on top of these Brexit, Covid and digital-driven adjustments; firms will be transitioning to a low-carbon way of working.

We saw in 2020 the power of good collaboration between the public and private sector in rising to the Covid challenge; hopefully 2021 will also be a year of great collaboration to deliver much needed economic growth. Partnerships between national and local government, business and educators will be critical. But success in the year ahead will also be highly dependent on building great business to business networks so that the success of our exemplar large and global players can be replicated across the wider economy.

Last year was all about job protection, but in the year ahead we need to shift the focus to job creation. There will undoubtedly be jobs lost because of Covid-19 and Brexit pressures. This year we will also be dealing with a cohort of graduates and school leavers that have been unable to undertake work experience or successfully pursue job opportunities due to sluggish economic growth.

For this reason, our focus must be on upskilling and reskilling. NI’s forthcoming Skills Strategy must remain firmly fixed on the long-term and the future economy. This year will be a period for gearing up our future workers with the skills that they need for a digital world and a greener world. But developing the skills of the existing labour market alone will not be sufficient for sustainable economic growth and in 2021 Northern Ireland must think about how we attract new talent to the region.

A key pillar of economic growth is investment in infrastructure. In the year ahead, interest rates will be low, and we have a great opportunity to allocate both private and public resources into delivering the infrastructure that is needed for a modern high-growth economy. That private and the public sector collaboration will be key and together we must ensure that the UK Government’s promise to ‘level-up’ is applied to all corners of the UK. We also need an agile planning system and reduced departmental silos to ensure the delivery our priority infrastructure projects.

Ultimately an overarching Economic Strategy with cross-cutting themes will be essential for delivering successful economic outcomes in 2021. For example, infrastructure delivery such as ultrafast broadband, electric vehicle chargers and the retrofitting of housing to ensure heat efficiency and reduced carbon, cannot be built without the appropriate skills base.

But the burden of developing high-level strategic economic policy cannot be done in isolation; nor can the burden of strategy delivery be placed solely with the public sector.

In 2021, the CBI will be working collaboratively with our partners in national and local government and the education sector to help develop and deliver that ambitious road map to successful and sustainable economic growth.

Angela McGowan is CBI NI director

Ulster Business