From government intervention at Stormont, to a raft of initiatives and courses across our universities and further education colleges, Northern Ireland is eyeing up how to train and reskill a generation in expanding sectors across STEM amid one of the most difficult periods in our jobs market, writes Emma Deighan
There has been no bigger push to reskill the NI workforce than now, during the current global pandemic – an event that has put NI unemployment at its highest level in eight years and exposed the fragility of specific sectors.
Unemployment now sits at 3.7% in Northern Ireland – an increase of 1.2% on March and a quarterly rise not seen since 2012.
In total 9,600 redundancies were proposed up to the end of October – double the previous 12 months.
These statistics are born from the closure of many businesses, the downscaling of services and reduced output and it has prompted a campaign to re-skill our workforce for future-proof careers in STEM roles (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) – a sector that has been under skilled but also a sector that has proven its value in a drastically digitalised world.
Developing the future of STEM industries has long been on the agenda for some of NI’s biggest firms, which have taken the task on in-house, but external activity in recent months has increased with the brawn of the Executive behind it.
In March, the Department for the Economy (DfE) invested £6.3m in a Skills Intervention Support Package, which offers up to 5,000 free raining places in further education colleges and universities.
The aim is to improve the employment opportunities for those facing job insecurity, as a result of Covid-19. The skills interventions will provide the opportunity for people to secure fully accredited qualifications up to postgraduate level. “This is particularly important for those considering moving into new sectors,” a spokesman for DfE said.
These skills span industries that are the among the giants of the future for employment potential.
DfE breaks them down into digital skills, green technologies, healthcare and life sciences and leadership and management.
Among the universities delivering the qualifications are Ulster University and Queen’s University.
Ulster University is on its second intake of students for courses that include programming and cloud modules – a three-week postgraduate course that can be completed digitally and has room for up to 50 students.
Further business courses have also been added to the list, including business recovery, digital transformation and more.
At Queen’s, courses including advanced composites and polymers, energy management and green technology, professional software development, artificial intelligence and biomedical engineering are among the offering.
At Belfast Metropolitan College, more than 18 STEM-related courses are part of the funded offering. Its courses include everything from digital marketing to cyber-security essentials and analysing data with Microsoft Power BI.
Northern Regional College availed of funding for seven STEM courses while North West Regional College has over 45 courses spanning green technology, digital, healthcare and more.
At the South West College five courses are on offer while schemes with the Open University aim to further support those who are seeking a career change as a result of Covid-19.
“In addition, the Assured Skills pre-employment programme has continued throughout the pandemic,” DfE said.
“It quickly responded to the needs of business and working closely with both further education colleges and universities, transitioned from classroom teaching to online delivery of academies from the start of lockdown in March.”
It said since April, 203 people have been upskilled with 192 of those gaining employment in areas such as financial services, business consultancy and data analytics.
Engineering and IT, particularly software development, have been some of the most popular higher level apprenticeship programmes in recent years, it added.
Complementing the free courses is an Apprenticeship Recovery Package. The package includes short-term interventions which are intended to minimise apprenticeship job losses, maintain and grow the supply of apprenticeship opportunities and support apprentices who have been displaced and lost their apprenticeship.
The department’s Careers Service is also offering support to those made redundant and facing redundancy or unemployment as a result of the pandemic.
It says the Careers Service offers a “range of employability interventions including providing up to date advice on current vacancies, help with job searching, skills assessment, CV compilation, online interview techniques, and advice on education and training options”.
The Careers Service Occupational Information Unit (COIU) also produces regular Northern Ireland sector-focussed information resources. These Ezine-format resources follow themes emerging from the Skills Barometer and the department’s Economic Recovery Plan, and include key growth sectors.
It’s a move that has been welcomed by some of the most successful STEM companies in NI.
Insurance firm Liberty IT, which is set to recruit up to 150 new members to its teams here and in Dublin over the next nine months, has been working alongside the universities here to protect its pipeline of talent.
It has also recently taken on its biggest haul of recruits, with 90 people set to join its graduate and intern programme in 2021.
Willie Hamilton, managing director, said: “That indirect support of growing skills is much needed and various departments have been proactive and we endorse recent steps but what we need to remember is that this is a long-term game and it’s not going to be completely supported by a Covid-related programme. We need many years of support. Doing it ourselves has been challenging and lots of companies say the same. These recent actions are most welcome and overdue.”
Ellie Francis, managing director, Nepturnal, an employer branding agency, said IT firms often have to compete fiercely to attract talent, and hopes such moves from the DfE will widen the talent pool.
“Talent in the tech sector is most definitely in short supply. However, this is much more of an issue when recruiting more specialist or experienced hires,” she said.
“As the skills required for these roles are specific and not quick to train, it means that recruitment can be extremely competitive. In addition to this, we are starting to see many global organisations offer remote opportunities which may dilute the talent pool here in Northern Ireland.
“It is very much an employees’ market and they are interviewing employers just as much as they are being interviewed for the role. Candidates are approaching the recruitment process in a measured and sophisticated way and therefore it’s essential that employers can stand out from the crowd when they are communicating with their talent market.”
For some, it may be too little too late, but for others it’s a welcome move. The amount of in-house apprenticeship programmes already on offer at STEM businesses is testament that regardless of Executive support, businesses are proactive when it comes to protecting their talent pipeline.