Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland Executive's adviser says investment in employment and skills will give competitive edge for investment

By Bill McGinnis

While the focus has been on corporation tax, our competitive edge for investors - quality people - is being threatened by Executive budget plans to strip substantial funding from the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL).

The Executive's proposed 11% reduction in DEL's budget will impact adversely on funding to promote and encourage spending by business on essential people skills - including the development of apprenticeship programmes.

The threat comes at a time when major international investors - most recently global bank Citi and Revel Systems - are saying that they have been attracted here by the ready availability of quality people.

Furthermore, it's widely recognised that we need to improve productivity, particularly in manufacturing, to strengthen our global competitiveness to achieve the faster economic growth required to enhance living standards and help fund key public sector areas.

Greater investment in the skills of our people is the route to higher levels of productivity. Skills are integral to employment prospects, pay and well-being, business competitiveness and the wider economy.

It's also deeply worrying that the threat to skills programmes comes at a time when employers in virtually every sector are complaining about a shortage of people with the skills they need for growth - particularly in international markets.

What we should be doing is investing more extensively in developing the skills of our people for both inward investors and locally-owned businesses, the latter probably requiring a sharper focus to ensure higher-level productivity and growth in both medium and long terms.

This strategic focus is essential if local employers are to be encouraged to engage with the department on apprenticeships and other programmes to enhance productivity.

Investment in our people must be a priority.

Skilled people need to be appreciated by the Executive as a balance-sheet asset and not, as appears to be the attitude at present, as a cost that can be trimmed back to save money.

Dr Bill McGinnis is the Northern Ireland Executive's adviser on employment and skills

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