Scottish skills policy in a Northern Irish context

By Marek Zemanik, Senior Public Policy Adviser.  

Getting skills policy right is crucial – not just for our post-COVID recovery, but for longer-term prospects in the face of rapidly changing economies. This is just as relevant in Scotland as it is in Northern Ireland. Where there are opportunities to learn from each other, they should be taken up. And what better time to do it than now, as the NI Executive prepares a new skills strategy? 

The CIPD was delighted to be invited as a speaker in a webinar organised by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, one in a series of events around the Chamber’s Future of Skills Campaign. The purpose of the session was to highlight some of the skills initiatives we have seen in Scotland in response to COVID, putting them in context of longer-term reforms and discuss what Northern Ireland could learn from the Scottish experience. 

Setting the scene 

An employer perspective was first provided by Paula Leathem, Senior HR Business Partner at NIE Networks. Paula highlighted her businesses’ approach to apprenticeships and other skills development opportunities, with some excellent examples of career progression. For a business audience, hearing the positive impact apprentices have made was particularly important. 

The context of the discussion is very much transferrable between the various nations and regions of the UK. COVID brought additional challenges to our labour market – higher unemployment and unequal impacts thereof, the risks of scarring effects on young people in particular, wellbeing concerns for employees and drops in skills investment by employers. 

That being said, these issues appear on top of existing pressures and transitions that any skills system needs to be ready for. The arrival of Industry 4.0 – the catch-all term encompassing the growth of artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data etc – is likely to change our skills needs. Demographic pressures are only going to increase with an ageing workforce, with associated impacts on lifelong learning and job quality considerations. Our productivity remains a challenge – especially pronounced in Northern Ireland. And of course, Brexit and its differential impact continues to dominate business roundtables. 

Skills interventions in Scotland 

The Scottish Government put in place a range of interventions to deal with the impact of the pandemic. Recognising the evidence from past recessions, it moved quickly to design and implement a Young Person’s Guarantee, which brings relevant stakeholders and initiatives together to ensure everyone aged 16 to 24 has the opportunity of work, education or training. Additional incentives and routes are currently being developed, following a significant financial allocation in the last Scottish Budget. These are on top of generous apprenticeship recruitment incentives out in place, alongside new Pathway Apprenticeships for young school leavers. 

On the other end of the scale, significant funding was announced for the National Transition Training Fund, aimed at adult upskilling and reskilling of over 25s made redundant or at risk of redundancy. This supplements the existing Individual Training Account scheme, which was extended and tweaked slightly – the one area where we argue a lot more progress could be made. 

These interventions need to be seen in the context of significant reforms to the Scottish skills landscape over the last few years. Chief amongst these has been the creation of the Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board, as a concerted effort to coordinate the work of Skills Development Scotland, the Scottish Funding Council and Scotland’s enterprise agencies. Another significant intervention we highlighted is the Developing the Young Workforce programme, which builds links between schools and businesses under a regional employer partnership approach. 

Big changes have also been made to apprenticeships, with the creation of the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board and the introduction of Foundation and Graduate Apprenticeships. These have seen a successful integration of vocational routes to the school curriculum, with a further expansion planned over the coming years. 

Lessons for Northern Ireland 

Much of the context described above applies to Northern Ireland as much as it applies to Scotland. This means that the discussion we had afterwards really focused on what common themes we can tease out of the public policy interventions in Scotland. There was a sense of urgency and opportunity – attendees felt that COVID could be the impetus for longer-term change, be it to the role of business in skills development, strategic join-up, vocational education or lifelong learning. 

Scotland’s experience with arm’s-length skills agencies and the Strategic Board was of particular interest. There is a recognition that skills policy can’t just sit in a silo – be it economy or education – it is a cross-cutting issue and should be treated as such. In fact, one of the points made by the OECD’s review of the Northern Irish skills system was that the governance of skills policies needs to be strengthened, for example through the introduction of a central oversight body. 

We also spoke about skills demand possibly changing very fast, which underlines the case for employers to be put at the heart of a flexible demand-led skills development system. There is some way to go to achieve this in Scotland too, but Northern Ireland could learn from the experience of the SAAB group or the National Transition Training Fund. 

Lastly, the need to future-proof our skills system was high on the agenda. This is linked to the above, but also means more investment in upskilling/reskilling/lifelong learning and essential skills. On the former, our education funding is still very front-loaded, with only a fraction of spending dedicated to lifelong learning – this will need to change if we are to face fast-paced economic change in the future. And on the latter – agreeing a common framework for essential skills like collaboration, creativity and critical thinking, would go a long way to ensuring young people have the flexible skills they will need to succeed. 

As usual, the time flew by incredibly quickly, but it was great to be involved. With the new Northern Irish skills strategy out for consultation very soon, we hope to keep the conversation going, share insights and use this period of disruption to drive positive change for the long term.

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