With the pandemic delaying long-term policy-making across the whole of the UK, it was good seeing the Northern Irish Department for the Economy publishing its long-anticipated skills strategy for consultation in June – Skills for a 10x Economy. The strategy looks to set the direction for the development of a flexible skills system for the next decade, covering a broad range of issues - from essential skills, through the right mix of qualifications, to the importance of a lifelong learning culture. This Voice article outlines the CIPD’s response.

Our approach

We held several roundtables and individual consultations with our members in Northern Ireland in order to inform our response to the skills strategy, alongside a short online survey that was circulated to our membership. The overall sense we got from these is that our members feel the strategy is a comprehensive and ambitious document. That being said, we added several policy proposals in areas that came up during discussions.

Regarding the overall approach of the strategy, our members felt that while a focus on growth industries is understandable, it was important not to neglect areas that underpin much of Northern Ireland’s economy. This included the public sector, logistics or construction. The energy sector also came up in discussions, especially considering Northern Ireland’s potential in renewable energy as we transition to net zero.

The strategy had to be developed in a cloud of uncertainty that has still not fully lifted - COVID challenges will have an impact on the skills system for some time to come. However, the challenges of COVID have also opened the door to opportunities. Nowhere is this clearer than in the shift in the ways of working. Our evidence points to both employers and employees expecting more flexibility in working lives – this can also provide more opportunities to develop skills, in particular for adult workers. 

Lifelong learning

The CIPD has long argued for an overhaul in public policy around lifelong learning. The fact that this is one of the three key objectives of the new strategy is very welcome. Creating a culture of lifelong learning, however, will require a combination of steps. Providing opportunities for skills development is only one piece of the puzzle. Stimulating demand from learners and removing any barriers to participation are just as important. 

Much of our discussions focused on the removal of barriers to boost lifelong learning. The starkest example is publicly funded childcare provision, where the difference to other parts of the UK is considerable. There is a range of options that could be explored, with varying degrees of public funding required, but it is clear that the lack of childcare support serves as a significant barrier to employment as well as upskilling and reskilling opportunities. 

For those in employment, the inability to take time off work for skills development can also be a significant barrier. There are two primary options available to policy-makers, which can work in tandem. Firstly, using employment law powers, the Executive could introduce a statutory right to request training leave. The consultation rightly points out that the policy in the form it exists in England simply does not work as it is both limited in scope and in public awareness. 

The second option, most likely using social security powers, would be the introduction of a form of subsidy to cover lost income during skills development. There are a few reasons why this latter approach may be preferable. Firstly, many employers already offer time off for skills development as a part of their benefits package, with others providing unpaid leave on request. Secondly, the introduction of a subsidy may be faster than employment law changes. Thirdly, the loss of income during training is a bigger barrier than the ability to take unpaid leave for those on lower incomes. A subsidy targeted at those who need it most, perhaps coupled with a sectoral focus, could make a big difference in lifelong learning.

Linked to the above is the issue to stimulating demand from learners, which could be done via a form of individual learning account (ILA). Such accounts are not mentioned in the strategy, although they are alluded to in other recent DfE documents. Our evidence shows that ILAs work best when targeted at upskilling for those furthest away from the skills development system, with a buildable scheme and use it or lose it funding.

Job quality

The CIPD’s purpose is to champion better work and working lives. We were therefore particularly pleased to see job quality included in the consultation. The development of a set of job quality indicators is a positive step, as is the intention to use the reach of the Executive to improve job quality through the Better Jobs Pledge – although tying financial support or procurement to job quality metrics will have to be done carefully and gradually.

In our experience, the key challenge in this area is the translation of research into employer guidance. There still is little understanding of what job quality means in practice and, crucially, what investing in good people practice can result in. There is a growing body of research which shows that improving job quality leads to a more engaged and satisfied workforce, with improved staff retention and productivity. This in turn means more productive businesses and, ultimately, better labour productivity for the country as a whole. Given Northern Ireland’s productivity challenges, it makes sense to focus on job quality alongside other productivity drivers.

We also welcome the proposal for the Better Jobs Pledge to focus on medium and large employers only. There are undoubtedly challenges for small businesses, which often lack basic people management skills. More generally, the route to improving job quality is better leadership and management training – something that the UK as a whole lags behind on compared to our key competitors. The strategy itself recognises that this support is patchy and this needs to improve, in particular for the smallest of businesses. Better leadership and management skills also stimulate employer demand for skills, which is just as important as the supply of skills development opportunities. 

What next?

The consultation response was one of the first comprehensive policy submissions we have made in Northern Ireland. We are currently working on our first job quality report, which is due to be released in November. And after that, all eyes turn to the Assembly election in May 2022, for which we will be writing a CIPD manifesto.

We have a range of engagement events coming up throughout the next 12 months to help us connect members with policy-makers. If you would like to be involved, please email us on 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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