To suggest that Northern Ireland has a skills crisis might sound melodramatic, yet the description is accurate. The word ‘crisis’ often infers a sudden event, an instantaneous problem. By contrast, our skills crisis has been years in the making and reflects, at least in part, a lack of focus on educational attainment and aspiration during the Troubles.
The figures are both stark and telling. Some 40% of our working age population have no qualifications – a scandalous situation. While the UK as a whole is under-skilled and under-qualified at low and medium skill levels, Northern Ireland is way below even average UK levels. And at high skill levels the UK is going backwards – Poland, Slovakia and Portugal are among the many countries that overtook the UK in recent years in the proportion of school leavers going on to university.
With a low skill base, Northern Ireland is poorly positioned to attract inward investment, or to support the expansion of indigenous enterprise. This leads to us having a higher than average level of unemployment, but also, and even more worryingly, a very high rate of economic inactivity – 29%, which is the worst rate in the UK. These factors also help explain our weak productivity rates.
If we are looking around for scapegoats, there are several – we can blame social attitudes, lack of demand for workers and skills, perhaps, too, a shortage of parental aspirations. Yet it is hard to avoid the conclusion that too many of our post-primary schools are failing their pupils. For all the attention paid to the excellent exam results achieved by the top grammar schools, society as a whole suffers from the weaknesses of those non-grammar schools that underperform.
“Both literacy and numeracy skills are a serious problem for local employers,” says Dr Bill McGinnis, Northern Ireland Adviser on Employment and Skills. “Far too many young people are currently leaving school without basic proficiency in either literacy or numeracy, and often both.”
Research published by City and Guilds confirms this impression. A third of Northern Ireland’s working population has poor levels of the essential literacy, numeracy and ICT skills. It says this could be costing employers substantial sums, with smaller employers losing up to £86,000 and larger employers up to £500,000 a year.
Repeated requests to the Department of Education and the Department for Employment and Learning for their perspectives on these problems were unsuccessful. But a large proportion of DEL’s budget is spent addressing the weaknesses and earlier this year DEL minister Sir Reg Empey argued that his department was achieving significant success in improving literacy and numeracy levels. Sir Reg suggested that the situation is much better now than in 1996, when an OECD report found that about 24% of Northern Ireland’s working age population had, at best, the lowest levels of literacy skills.
There is no question, though, that business here is frustrated by the weak skills environment. Linda Brown, director of the Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland, says: “The IoD is very concerned about the numbers of young people that continue to leave school without the basic skills of literacy and numeracy that they need for work and life. The problem seems to be worse here than in our competitor nations, including the Republic and GB, and we need to understand why this is still happening. It has become a burden on DEL, which has to spend valuable resources addressing these weaknesses when it should be investing in high end skills in the labour market.
“Employers are having to invest substantially in training graduates to enhance their IT skills. It appears that even students who have studied some computer related courses are not equipped with the right skills for some of the high value jobs that are being created. We need to be sure too that we are providing young people with the skills that will be needed in the ‘green’ sector that is seen as a growth sector for Northern Ireland.
“While it is understandable that colleges and universities have to respond to students’ choice of courses, this begs the question of whether enough is being done in schools regarding careers advice. Business needs to get more engaged in schools, to inform young people about career opportunities and the skills that business need now and in the future, and to provide good role models.”
Bill McGinnis makes a similar point. “The future success of our economy depends on employers and individuals recognising that their long term prosperity is inextricably linked to how they develop and utilise their skills base,” he says. “This in turn will lead to wider economic benefits, including improved productivity and sustainable employment.
“If we are to improve, our systems must become more dynamic and adaptable. Increased flexibility and responsiveness to employment and skills issues will be essential to effectively respond to the current downturn, as well as to meet the future unknown challenges and opportunities.
“In Northern Ireland there has been an increase in qualifications at the higher level skills over the last decade. However, Northern Ireland still lags behind the UK on people with higher level skills and is significantly behind the UK in terms of the numbers of adults with no qualifications. Addressing this problem requires much closer links between schools, both primary and secondary, and industry on structured initiatives.”
Dr McGinnis’s main role now is to encourage employers to become more committed and engaged in improving vocational skills. Some of Northern Ireland’s recent inward investors have shown the way in doing this, not least Citigroup in Belfast, which has established its own Citi Technology Academy for staff development. This has taken on 37 graduates and provided them with additional in-depth skills in financial services through 12 week training programmes – that have given the new staff detailed on knowledge on how Citi operates, plus expertise in capital markets, operating systems, programming, database technology, software testing and infrastructure. All the graduates come from STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths – backgrounds, some with computer science degrees.
Citi’s establishment of an academy is a recognition that it requires very specific skills for its staff and is not a criticism of standards at Northern Ireland’s universities and colleges. “Citi are delighted with the depth and breadth of the graduate talent pool that the universities in Northern Ireland continue to produce across all the disciplines that it recruits from,” says a spokesman for the bank.
“The universities are key to the success of Citi in Belfast, with 57 highly qualified graduates starting with us this year and 20 undergraduates embarked on placement programmes throughout the business. Citi has a very active talent development programme and any graduate who joins our programme will have access to world class personal and professional development programmes throughout their careers at Citi.”
Citi’s training programme underlines two important realities of the skills environment in Northern Ireland: that the quality of graduates is not the problem and that top employers expect to assist staff with professional development after they have been appointed. But the extent to which there is a shortage of graduate level skills and the absence of basic skills across much of the adult population fully justify the description of there being a skills crisis.