Contributing to the new Skills Strategy

By Marek Zemanik, Senior Public Policy Adviser. 

With CIPD members driving workplace skills development across many businesses, skills policy is one of our key areas of interest. The Northern Ireland Executive, and the Department of the Economy in particular, is currently working on a new Skills Strategy that is due out for consultation soon. 

Given some of the underlying challenges in the Northern Irish economy – high economic inactivity, low productivity, persisting inequalities – it is crucial we get this right. The CIPD is playing an active part in this process, boosting our public policy work in Northern Ireland. 

Engaging policymakers

In mid-2020, one of the most comprehensive overviews of the Northern Irish skills landscape was published by the OECD. This serves as a very useful evidence review, alongside some great public policy recommendations. We are naturally keen to ensure that the voice of the NI people profession is reflected and were delighted to take part in an OECD roundtable in October on their report. 

More recently, however, the NI Assembly’s Committee for the Economy invited the CIPD to give evidence in their micro-inquiry on the proposed Skills Strategy. This online event was held on Thursday 28th January 2021 and brought business groups, educational institutions as well as voluntary sector representatives together to discuss two key questions – what changes to institutional design are needed and what measures are required to support continuous skills development? 

The session generated a lot of ideas, with considerable agreement on some of the key challenges and perhaps even some solutions. A Committee report will be produced shortly and sent to the Department for consideration. The purpose of this blog is to outline some of the key themes and how they relate to CIPD areas of interest. 

Key themes 

Some of the main challenges across the NI economy are not unique to Northern Ireland, although some of the context within which they have to be seen is – i.e. Brexit and the impact thereof. Nonetheless, just like the challenges, some of the key themes that emerged from the session would be familiar to readers from across the UK. 

One of the issues that came up across discussions in the various groups were the differences in approach between large businesses and SMEs. These differences can take many forms. We have been told that some training programmes and support schemes are perceived to be only for large businesses, with that perception fuelled by a complex landscape with poor signposting. We also know that there are particular challenges that SMEs face, with limited access to management training or even basic HR advice. We made this point and highlighted some steps the Executive could take in this space. 

The issue of joining up and streamlining policy came up repeatedly. It goes without saying that the Skills Strategy has to get buy-in from other departments beyond Economy – most notably Education, Finance or Communities. For a Skills Strategy to be truly successful, it needs to be cross-Executive. This was one of the key conclusions from the OECD report too, alongside the recommendation of a new oversight body. 

A theme that comes up regularly in conversations across all parts of the UK is the balance between academic and vocational education. The CIPD has long argued that if we want to be able to meet the skills demands of our changing economies, we need to shift the balance towards vocational education – both in terms of funding, but also in terms of the societal value placed on these routes. The role of politicians in leading by example was highlighted. 

In addition to a discussion about academic and vocational skills, a common theme was the crucial importance of transferable skills. Sometimes called essential skills, or meta-skills, these are things like collaboration or critical thinking that are so important to productivity. We made the point that it would be useful for a common framework to exist, bringing together schools, further and higher education, training providers and, crucially, employers. 

The delivery of skills development was another significant theme. There was broad recognition of the importance of flexible, mixed provision and an increase in modular approaches, which allow learners to build up credits and qualifications gradually in a way that suits them. This is especially crucial in the context of lifelong learning, which brings us to the last theme of the day. 

There was universal agreement that lifelong learning needed a significant boost in Northern Ireland. While some of it depends on the supply of agile skills development opportunities, it will primarily require more funding for a range of interventions. Several ideas were mooted, with the CIPD’s enhanced Individual Learning Account model highlighted in particular. With our economies moving away from providing jobs for life due to the pace of change, public policy needs to reflect that. More broadly, we all agreed that boosting lifelong learning should be seen as a wider societal benefit and not just in the context of the economy. 

Next steps 

It is imperative that our profession’s voice is heard loudly across the relevant public policy areas in Northern Ireland and we are starting to take steps towards that goal. We will of course fully respond to the Skills Strategy consultation when it is published. But we will need your help, so please do look out for future events or surveys so we can accurately translate your concerns into public policy asks.

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