How to train the workforce for the future

18 Dec 2020 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 18 Dec 2020

Pic: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay

If we are going to build a strong economy in Northern Ireland post pandemic and Brexit we are going to need to have the right workforce to power it.

Without a pool of people with the relevant skills businesses will not locate here and those that are will move away. 

This simple yet existential challenge is the subject of the latest report from think tank Pivotal.

It is made all the more formidable by the relentless squeeze that automation will have on the availability of many low skilled occupations. And the fact that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on younger people and those in insecure and low paid jobs makes the task so much more urgent.

The Northern Ireland economy has taken a terrible battering in 2020 and is expected to contract by an unprecedented 11% by the year-end. Young people have been hardest hit. Whilst general unemployment is at 3.5%, the figure for 16-24 year-olds is 11.5%.

Northern Ireland has some of the lowest levels of high paid jobs, innovation and productivity of any UK region and also the highest level of low paid jobs in the UK. This is a serious vulnerability. Pivotal cites research showing that one in four jobs paid below the living wage, the figure rises to 70% of those 18-21.

The latest figures (collated prior to the pandemic) show 10.2% of young people aged 16-24 as not in Education, Employment or Training This makes them at risk of long term unemployment.

Pivotal notes that skills in engineering technology, computer science and physical and environmental sciences as being currently under-supplied in the workforce, despite being areas projected to grow over the next ten years.  

The next challenge will be to produce a workforce flexible enough to be able to take on jobs which rapidly accelerating technological progress has yet to create. Many entrants to primary schools this year will end up in jobs which do not currently exist. This has profound implications both for the educational system and also for lifelong learning as people switch from defunct sectors to growing ones.

The impact will not just be on the low skilled. Already AI is having an impact on professions like accountancy and law.

These challenges are not unique to Northern Ireland. They are universal. But if Northern Ireland is to succeed in the future it will need to ensure that it has the capability of thriving in a context which will mean that work takes on new, unexpected forms.

The report also claims this will mean that the majority of future employment will be at the managerial, professional or associate professional level “whilst only approximately 10% will be at the NQF level 2 or below.”

This automatically excludes the large numbers of school leavers who have not reached this minimal level. Skilling them up has to be a priority.

There are also  implications for both how and what children and young people are taught.

The current system is subject-specific and has an emphasis on rote learning. However this leaves little time in the curriculum for teaching those soft transferable skills which are already highly valued by employers – like leadership, teamwork and problem-solving.

Thus we have a paradoxical situation whereby the emphasis on academic achievement is actually stifling the passing on of attributes so vital in rapidly changing workplaces. Evidence from the Department for the Economy indicates that 89% of employers reported difficulties finding applicants with any technical or practical skills, whilst 52% reported difficulties finding applicants with complex analytical skills

Local employers are already reporting a shortage of recruits who have these skills.

On top of this there is the urgent need for digital transformation within the education system. Digital skills are already a must in the employment market and these need to be taught from primary school onwards.

It is important to note that the existing curriculum has not been revised for almost 13 years – and therefore needs to be reviewed given what we now know about what young people will need in order to thrive in a rapidly changing world.

Traditionally government has seen the transition from compulsory education as the time to intervene to help struggling youngsters become employable but this report – and common sense – suggests that that may well be too little, too late. This will be especially the case for those young people who come from chaotic households and have mental or physical health problems and have had contact with the Justice system.

This is not to suggest that government has not acted. There are several existing schemes which help young people to adjust to the needs of employers and to foster a culture of lifelong learning. There has also been a new approach to apprenticeships with co-ordinated work between FE colleges and employers to fill skills gaps.

The report cites the Assured Skills scheme as an example of good practice. It was set up by DfE and Invest NI for foreign investors to make sure that the skills they need are available in Northern Ireland. It’s now been extended to include employers already based here. It claims to have made a contribution of £141 million to the local economy as a result.

One significant barrier remains. Our traditional approach to education instils a mindset whereby academic success is valued more highly than vocational training. As a result sixth form and higher education are seen as more prestigious than further education. Combinations of both academic and vocational training are limited. This may be having unintended consequences when young people discover that the route they have chosen does not necessarily make them as employable as they assumed.

Pivotal will be doing more work in this area in order to help guide public policy and have identified five key areas to explore in more detail:

 Educational inequalities and disengagement amongst young people in Northern Ireland;

 Developing a curriculum for the future workforce;

 Resourcing and delivering innovative careers advice;

 Attitudes to further education;

 Enhancing partnerships between employers and training providers.

This report could not be more timely and should be welcomed by government as significant contribution to a vital debate around how we build the economy and adapt our workforce to the challenges that lie ahead.  


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