AQW 2585/17-22 – Addressing skills deficit

Mr Patsy McGlone (Mid Ulster): To ask the Minister for the Economy what measures her Department is taking to address the skills deficit.

Minister for the Economy:  My Department works closely with employers, education providers and the local community to ensure that Northern Ireland has a Skills System that is dynamic and flexible enough to meet the needs of the rapidly changing economy. By helping students, workers and those not currently engaged with the workplace move further up the skills ladder, we support individuals’ earning potential, health and wellbeing.

Since taking up my role I have engaged with a wide range of employers, business groups and InvestNI to ensure that skills are aligned to the correct and future needs of the Northern Ireland economy.

Over the last ten years, through the implementation of the Northern Ireland Skills Strategy “Success through Skills – Transforming Futures”, we have ensured that technical skills are firmly on the agenda, with increases against all population goals, including those with a level 3 qualification, which is up from 55% in 2011, to 67% now, and those with a level 4 qualification, up from 33% to 44% now.

This has been achieved through a number of Departmental initiatives, outlined below, and in partnership with the Department of Education and Department for Communities.
This collaboration continues, as my Department leads on the development of a new Skills Strategy, which will set the skills agenda for the period 2021-30. This has brought together key stakeholders from industry, local government and education institutions to consider the key challenges around lifelong learning, skills imbalances and the skills required for the modern workplace.

Implementation of the new Skills Strategy will be supported by short, medium and long term implementation plans, which will align provision to the achievement of the objectives set out in the Industrial Strategy and the Programme for Government, with a specific focus in addressing Outcome 6 of the draft Programme for Government – ‘We have more people working in better jobs’.

Skills Initiatives

During 2019/20, my Department has up-skilled 227 people through the Assured Skills programme, in areas such as financial services, cyber security, business skills, corporate travel and a number of IT academies, through which 190 people have secured employment. Unfortunately, Bridge to Employment has seen a reduction in the number of applications to the programme. Currently, the Department is working with the Department for Communities to promote Bridge within the Jobs & Benefits Office network. As at 31 December 2019, 2,409 employees have been up-skilled or re-skilled through Skills Focus, a programme which increases the work skills of existing employees. In addition, through the InnovateUS programme, my Department has undertaken 249 new projects, increasing the skills of small businesses in products, processes or services.

Further Education

The six Further Education (FE) Colleges in Northern Ireland have established strong and effective relationships with businesses, industry and employers, through seven Curriculum Hubs. These Hubs ensure that the curriculum provision and the programmes delivered are fully aligned to the priority and growth sectors’ current and future skills needs.

Apprenticeships, Careers and Vocational Education

The Department currently supports skills development through the ApprenticeshipsNI (Levels 2 & 3) and Higher Level Apprenticeship (HLA) (Level 4+) programmes. ApprenticeshipsNI and HLA are demand led, work-based programmes, designed around the needs of employers, which offer recognised training and qualifications to new employees and existing employees who are taking on new roles that require significant training and development.

As of October 2019, 9,514 individuals were enrolled on a DfE funded Apprenticeships.
The Department has also sought to put employers at the centre of future provision development by establishing employer-led Sectoral Partnerships across key sectors to inform apprenticeship pathways, content and curriculum. Through Sectoral Partnerships, employers work with FE Colleges and Universities to design and agree curriculum and content for apprenticeships in each occupational area, ensuring that provision and content meet employers’ needs and the needs of the wider economy.

Through its Training for Success (TfS) programme, the Department provides a training opportunity for 16 to 17 year olds who are not in education or full time employment, with extended eligibility for those with a disability, or from an “in care” background. Training is available from Levels 0 to Levels 3, with most undertaking programmes at Level 2. Training is provided by FE Colleges and private training organisations. Between August and October 2019, there were 4,301 participants on the programme.

On a phased basis, from September 2020, the Department plans to introduce a series of reforms to the Youth Training system, as outlined in ‘Generating Our Success – the Youth Training Strategy for Northern Ireland’. It proposes a new, full-time Level 2 vocational education programme, the NI Traineeship. The proposed new programme will provide high quality, vocational education and training at Level 2, combined with structured work-based learning and numeracy & literacy qualifications to young people who are not yet in employment, but who are ready and able to engage and achieve on a challenging programme in their preferred occupational area.

The Department is also developing a new vocational training programme (Skills for Life and Work) aimed at those not yet ready to commence a Traineeship, or Level 2 Apprenticeship.

The Department’s careers advisers use the Skills Barometer data as part of the guidance process to inform young people and adults about skills and demand

Skills development remains an area of critical focus for Invest NI, in terms of ensuring that the region continues to benefit from new economic opportunities.

Invest NI is committed to ongoing partnership working with relevant Government Departments, Councils, industry and the academic sector, to ensure continued curriculum alignment and ‘joined-up’ thinking in relation to the development of a future skills pipeline.

Invest NI also provides a portfolio of tailored skills solutions, targeted at both indigenous and FDI companies, and which allows for the upskilling of existing and new staff.

Over the past five years, Invest NI has offered support to 1,300 skills based projects, with £51 million of support contributing towards total investment of £200 million.

Higher Education

The Northern Ireland Skills Barometer indicates that HE skills are, in general, only marginally undersupplied. However, there is an imbalance across individual subject areas, with some of the largest undersupply predicted in STEM subjects.

Northern Ireland’s Universities are aware of this undersupply, and have taken measures to rebalance provision, with the result that enrolments and qualifications in STEM subjects have been increasing over the past number of years.

In 2012/13, 22% of students at Northern Ireland’s Higher Education institutions were studying a Narrow STEM related subject and 45% a Broad STEM related subject. In 2018/19, these figures had risen to 25.9% and 50.5% respectively.

My Department will continue to work with the local Universities to examine how best to ensure that the supply of graduates is aligned with the needs of the local economy.