Public policy constraints 

There have been two primary factors constraining public policy-making in Northern Ireland in recent years. First, the uncertainty arising from the UK’s departure from the EU and the ongoing negotiations regarding Northern Ireland’s market. Second, and partially linked, is the lack of stability in political institutions. There is currently no functioning Assembly or Executive. Civil servants, tasked with running departments, are limited to the scope of their policy development. On top of this, significant budget cuts have to be found across all departments as a result of the latest budget settlement. 

 

These factors frustrate attempts to tackle Northern Ireland’s underlying and persisting labour market challenges. Highlighting the scale of the challenge, a recent Department for the Economy delivery plan reported that Northern Ireland has: 

  • the highest rate of working-age economic inactivity in the UK for the past 30 years 
  • the lowest median wage of the UK nations – over 8% lower than the UK average 
  • the fewest people with third-level qualifications and more with no qualifications than the UK as a whole 
  • one of the worst-performing UK regions in terms of productivity, 10–20% below the UK average, and 40% lower than Ireland.  

Getting skills policy right is crucial if we want to make progress on each of these challenges. 

Building on progress 

Encouragingly, there has been much to be positive about in economic and skills policy in Northern Ireland over the last few years. The new economic strategy from 2021 recognises the importance of skills to the economy and led to the publication of a new skills strategy  in 2022. That strategy will bring together a range of skills interventions that already exist in Northern Ireland, some of which are unique among the four nations of the UK. Key programmes include: 

  • Apprenticeships. Primarily at Levels 2 and 3, but with an increasing number of Higher Level Apprenticeships too. In a recent development, age limits are being removed. 
  • Traineeships. A full-time Level 2 vocational education training pathway, delivered at FE colleges, also providing progression opportunities to a Level 3 apprenticeship. 
  • The SkillUP Flexible Skills Fund. This provides free, shorter courses that are aligned with the new 10x economic strategy. Its aim is to boost participation in lifelong learning and reduce key skills imbalances. 
  • Skills Focus and InnovateUs. Programmes aimed at SMEs, providing tailored training interventions delivered in FE colleges.  
  • Assured Skills. A demand-led, pre-employment training programme that helps individuals gain the skills they need to compete for guaranteed job vacancies. 

The new strategy focuses on addressing skills imbalances and driving economic growth, creating a culture of lifelong learning and enhancing digital skills and developing a digital spine. 

Achieving these will require focus on three supporting policy enablers – additional investment in the skills system, enhanced policy cohesion, and strong relationships. The scope for additional investment is limited under a challenging budget settlement, but there has been progress on the other two. Among them is the creation of the Northern Ireland Skills Council (NISC) – an advisory body made up of business, trade union and community and voluntary sector representatives, including the CIPD. 

Northern Ireland Skills Council 

After meeting on an interim basis over the last two years, the first formal meeting of the NISC took place in September 2023. This was the first time the council met with a newly appointed chair (Kathleen O’Hare) and several new members appointed through a formal process. In total, there were over 20 members (appointed, ex-officio and associate) representing a range of stakeholders. 

There was clear recognition of the importance of the council in the absence of functioning institutions. The opportunity to shape delivery plans and, crucially, develop consensus was significant. A range of themes were discussed, but one of the key conclusions from the meeting was the need to prioritise. Governance of skills policy, the funding and structure of Further Education, careers services and STEM were identified as some of the priority areas for focus. Specific deliverables will be agreed at the next meeting in December 2023. 

In addition to full council meetings, three sub-groups were formed to focus on specific areas that cut across the themes discussed above. The sub-groups meet in addition to full council meetings and report back on progress. Currently, they are: 

  • Skills Equality, Diversion and Inclusion (SEDI) 
  • Green Energy Skills 
  • Digital Skills. 

Of particular interest to CIPD members is SEDI, which is chaired by Caroline van der Feltz, HR Director at Danske Bank and a CIPD Fellow. The SEDI group is focusing on identifying barriers to skills development and areas where there is potential to bring positive influence and change. It has initially focused on disability, gender and age. 

Where next?  

As initial discussions give way to specific plans, the voice of the people profession will make a key contribution around the NISC table. From prioritising topics, through shaping delivery plans, to improving specific skills programmes – if you have any thoughts on the skills landscape in Northern Ireland, please do not hesitate to get in touch with the team via northernireland@cipd.co.uk.  

About the author

Marek Zemanik, Senior Public Policy Adviser for Scotland

Marek joined the CIPD in October 2019. He leads the CIPD’s public policy work in Scotland, focusing primarily on fair work, skills and productivity. Prior to joining the CIPD, Marek spent nearly a decade working at the Scottish Parliament as a political adviser responsible for policy-making across devolved areas of public policy.

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