Helping employers navigate the skills landscape in Northern Ireland

Nearly half (43%) of all young people across the UK feel the pandemic has harmed their long-term career prospects, with over a quarter (26%) saying they are not confident about being able to achieve their future career aspirations. That is why the CIPD has launched its One Million Chances campaign, which calls on governments and employers to do everything they can to create opportunities for young people. 

With skills policy almost entirely devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive, the range of programmes that employers and employees can get involved in is different to other parts of the UK. This can be challenging to navigate, especially for employers that operate across the whole country. We list some of the key devolved initiatives here, with the relevant links throughout. 

JobStart 

One of the flagship initiatives that the UK Government put in place in response to the pandemic – Kickstart – only operates in England, Wales and Scotland. Northern Ireland has recently launched its own similar scheme, called JobStart, run by the Department for Communities. 

The purpose of JobStart is to provide funding for employers to create new job opportunities for 16- to 24-year-olds who are at risk of long-term unemployment. Employers of all sizes can apply and submit job opportunities. Government support includes a one-off £1,500 for set-up costs, but the bulk of funding covers 100% of the National Minimum Wage for 25 hours per week for a total of 6 months (or 9 months for a young person who meets additional criteria). 

Skills Growth and Skills Focus 

Several initiatives exist in Northern Ireland, which seek to help employers of all sizes develop the skills of their managers and workforce and identify skills needs. Skills Growth support is provided by InvestNI as part of a broader suite of support programmes in relation to skills. Skills Growth programmes exist for SMEs as well as larger businesses and can cover a range of training-related costs. 

The Skills Focus programme is targeted at SMEs and seeks to support and facilitate collaborative working between business and colleges. Tailored upskilling interventions are then developed through this collaboration. Participation in the programme normally requires a 25% employer contribution, but the Department for the Economy waived this until March 2022 to support companies throughout the pandemic. 

The Department is also currently developing a Flexible Skills Fund, the aim of which will be to reskill individuals in jobs at risk of automation. This is an extension of the upskilling support provided during the pandemic. It may also include new lifelong learning accounts or vouchers for individuals with low levels of skills. 

Apprenticeships 

There are two main types of apprenticeship available in Northern Ireland – ApprenticeshipsNI, available at skills levels 2 and 3, and Higher Level Apprenticeships at levels 4 to 7. These can be undertaken by new employees or by existing employees for upskilling. There are around 150 ApprenticeshipsNI frameworks and over 45 HLA frameworks to choose from. 

Even though larger businesses have to pay the UK-wide Apprenticeship Levy, the way apprenticeships are funded is different across the UK. For both main types of apprenticeship, contributions towards training are available from the Department for the Economy. At the moment, these differ by age (they are fully covered for younger apprentices), but the Department has announced it plans to adjust age-related criteria in the programme. 

Two separate employer incentive schemes are currently also in place. First, the Apprenticeship Return, Retain & Result Scheme provides up to £3,700 per apprentice to reduce the risk of redundancy following furlough, incentivising the return, retention and successful completion across apprenticeship programmes. Second, the New Apprenticeship Incentive Scheme offers up to £3,000 per apprentice to encourage and support employers to create apprenticeship opportunities. 

Traineeships 

Traineeships are a new vocational training pathway being introduced from September 2021. They will provide a high-quality vocational education and training programme, including structured work-based learning, to people who are not yet in employment or not yet working in their chosen occupational area. Traineeships will be introduced in over 30 vocational areas over time. 

Employers interested in supporting a trainee through the work-based learning element of the programme should contact their local college’s training unit (contact details are available here). Participating employers will have to agree to provide a minimum of 20% (one day per week) of the programme as work-based learning.

Assured Skills 

Through Assured Skills, companies interested in creating jobs in Northern Ireland – either new inward investors or existing employers considering expansion ­– can access targeted pre-employment training programmes. 

Assured Skills is fully funded by the Department for the Economy and typically takes the form of a six-to-eight-week academy, with training delivered by a local college or university. The model is versatile and has been used to recruit staff in areas ranging from data analytics, through to financial services and welding. 

Work Experience and Essential Skills 

The Work Experience Programme in Northern Ireland allows employers to offer meaningful work experience to the unemployed or in receipt of benefits. The programme, open to 18- to 65-year-olds, should last between 2 and 8 weeks and employers may be eligible to receive an incentive payment of £250. 

A new strand of the programme was recently added, aimed directly at young people aged 18-24. The Opportunity Guarantee is a placement lasting 13 weeks, with a guaranteed interview for a job or apprenticeship at the end of it. Employers can receive up to £500 for this, as well as funding for certain costs associated with the placement. 

Essential Skills is a programme provided by the Department for the Economy and is aimed at the development of literacy, numeracy and ICT skills for employees. Training is free and can be delivered within the workplace or at a local college.

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