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Fit for purpose, fit for the future?

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Emma Cowan on November 26, 2013 - 1:45 pm in In Depth

An appropriately skilled workforce is one of Northern Ireland’s selling points in attracting inward investment and assuring economic growth. But, asks Emma Cowan, what are we doing to create that essential talent pool?

December sees the launch  of a consultation on the way forward for the Modern Apprenticeship programme. Traditionally apprenticeships have been geared towards vocations in sectors such as construction, manufacturing and engineering but already in Northern Ireland, the Modern Apprenticeship scheme extends far beyond this, into beauty sectors, customer service, retail, agriculture, accounting, hospitality – even game and wildlife management.

Despite this, the scheme has come in for its fair share of criticism and the consultation being prepared aims to address current issues and build an extended framework that will skill Northern Ireland into the future. The Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) is already in discussions with key stakeholders and we can expect a consultation document that looks at stronger employer input to the curriculum behind apprenticeship areas, scope for higher level apprenticeships and a focus on preparing apprentices for life by giving them transferable skills.

Much to offer

While  companies engaged already in discussion with DEL will not comment on the potential shape of apprenticeships to come, other stakeholders are prepared to comment on the existing situation.  Sheila Dornan from Lagan Construction remarks: “We don’t use modern apprentices ourselves at the moment, because so much of our work is abroad and that doesn’t fit with the scheme. We do have our own internal apprenticeship programme, which is operated through our sub-contractors, who are usually based near our sites. Apprenticeship opportunities we offer include mechanical engineering, electrical trades, joinery and bricklaying.”

In terms of ways to recruit, Sheila believes the apprenticeship route has much to offer: “Personally I think it is a good way to recruit. You get young people at an age when they’re very influenced by their surroundings and it gives the employer an opportunity to mould that young individual into the company philosophy .”

Graduates are not excluded from this approach – the company is involved in placement year programmes and Sheila comments: “60 to 70% of graduates recruited would have gone through a placement year with us and that acts as a sort of apprenticeship for their roles.”

An SME in the food sector was not so positive. According to a spokesperson: “We work with three different colleges and we have good relationships with them, but we are still having difficulties finding the right staff. At the moment we’re looking for technical staff with a food science background and it is very difficult to get the right match to our organisation’s needs. The colleges work hard to meet employers’ needs, but they could do better and there is obviously an issue attracting people to work in our sector.”

Basic skills

This second commentator was speaking in terms of job skills at all levels and, in reality, the Modern Apprenticeship is just one route the Department of Employment and Learning adopts to try to create a workforce that is fit for future purpose. The drive to skill up Northern Ireland embraces all levels  and crosses sectors not traditionally associated with apprenticeships. Speaking at a recent conference, Finance Minister Simon Hamilton laid out the agenda for the future: ““Creative Industries and tourism are two parts of the new economy we are building in Northern Ireland which will sit alongside the ICT, financial services, advanced engineering and agri-food sectors that are already driving forward our economic recovery.” While some Modern Apprenticeships are available for hospitality, engineering and agriculture, the majority of these sectors are not having skills needs met by apprenticeship programmes, despite the fact that, in the UK, Modern Apprenticeships are already available for CIT and Creative Industries.

One of the big issues apprenticeship programmes face is the lack of basic skills in literacy and numeracy. The last PISA study in 1996 found that some 24% of the young population in the UK and Ireland were deficient in these basic skills and a subsequent report by OECD, published in October 2013, found that in Northern Ireland and England, levels of numeracy and literacy were below those of the previous generation and among the lowest of the 24 countries surveyed. Alan Shannon, former Permanent Secretary of the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) believes that DEL’s Essential Skills programme, which is currently offered by the FE colleges to some 20,000 students each year and is offered with Modern Apprenticeships should, in fact, be adopted by schools to work more effectively at addressing this skills gap: “DEL has evidence to show that some children who struggle with English and Maths at GCSE can cope better with essential skills and we would push for the programme to be available in schools.”

Dr Stephen Farry

Dr Stephen Farry

At the other end of the scale, looking to the future, the demand is for a very highly skilled and qualified workforce, meeting the needs of those sectors highlighted by Simon Hamilton. Dr Stephen Farry, Minister for Employment and Learning, puts the need in a nutshell: “My Department’s Skills Strategy clearly demonstrates that our economy will require higher skill levels. For example, by 2020, almost half of our workforce will need to be trained to Level four or above. We also need to invest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills and management and leadership skills.” (Level 4 is degree or equivalent).

Building skills at higher levels requires the input of the universities, as Dr Stephen Farry comments: “Our Higher Education Institutions make a vast contribution to our economy through the provision of high quality teaching and learning, leading to highly skilled graduates and postgraduates. I have established a number of employer-led groups which aim to drive up the skills levels of the workforce across their respective sectors. Key to the success of these groups is collaborative working between industry and education.”

When it comes to delivering these skills, DEL has elected to adopt the ‘North Carolina Model’ put forward by Martin Lancaster, a onetime adviser to Bill Clinton and a former director of community colleges in North Carolina. Alan Shannon comments:  “North Carolina used to be driven by the tobacco industry but that has gone. Its legacy has been a fund set up to re-employ tobacco industry workers and to attract other kinds of industries into the area. Now, aeronautics and IT industries are thriving there and the colleges have offered free training for  companies coming into the area to skill their workforce. DEL is taking the same approach through its Assured Skills Programme.”

Unseen force

In its drive to build skills that are tailored to employer need, DEL is often an unseen force behind the headline. For example when Caterpilar (parent company to beleaguered FG Wilson, which made redundancies earlier this year) announced it was now employing 200 people in an EU administrative centre in Belfast, DEL was behind the scenes, funding the retraining of staff for the jobs that were created.

The same story lies behind Chicago Mercantile’s decision to set up here. Northern Ireland was initially attractive because the time zone differences still allowed for daily communication between sites and allowed the company to simultaneously operate on the New York and London stock exchanges. Again, DEL supported the move by funding staff training for the 90 jobs created.

It is not just in inward investment cases that DEL is prepared to step into the breach. Andor Technology is one example of a local company supported through the Assured Skills programme. When the company announced 120 new jobs, DEL  stepped in, paying the Queen’s University of Belfast to provide relevant post-graduate qualifications for these highly skilled posts.

Skilling our workforce for the future is not as simple as it may, at first, seem. The needs are very diverse, from basic literacy and numeracy, to complex programming skills, post-graduate level qualifications and company specific training and skilling programmes.  The most successful initiatives appear to be those which embrace the department, educational institutions and employers as partners so, if you want a part in upskilling for the future, take note of the consultation document being released 9th December and have your say.

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