Skills - bringing public policy and practice together

By Lee Ann Panglea – Head of CIPD Scotland and Northern Ireland 

 

The CIPD’s public policy work in Northern Ireland is stepping up. And it is happening at a very opportune time too – skills policy has shot up to the top of the agenda at the Department for the Economy, with knock on impacts on areas like productivity and job quality. 

Our role is to bring public policy and HR practice closer together. Not only do we want to help members understand the complex policy landscape - we want our members to change it. After all, CIPD members have been at the heart of profound people and organisational changes over the last 15 months, with plenty more challenges to come. 

This blog focuses on skills and why they are so important for individuals, businesses and the country as a whole. It ends with a call to arms – we need your help to inform our response to the Executive’s skills consultation. 

Skills and HR practice 

At its most direct level, being able to employ people with the right skills is a basic building block of any organisation. Ensuring the supply of skilled employees to meet employer demand is a key public policy priority too. We know from research that skills are an essential driver of economic productivity, which has been a long-standing problem across the UK and in Northern Ireland in particular. 

But it’s not just about matching demand and supply – skills utilisation is just as important. Skills utilisation means ensuring that employees are using the skills they have in the right way, that they are given tasks that match their knowledge and skills, with sufficient autonomy in carrying them out. Again, the links to performance and productivity are well researched, with HR professionals at the heart of decision-making. 

In addition to formal and informal skills that allow employees to do their jobs, there has been an increasing recognition of the importance of so-called essential skills – sometimes called transferable skills or meta-skills. These are skills such as communication, team working and problem-solving that all workers need in modern workplaces. They are especially important for the future-proofing of our labour market facing significant economic transitions. 

It is also important to recognise that the vast majority of the 2030 workforce are already in work. The importance of investing in and improving the skill levels of existing employees – be it through learning on the job, any in-house development programmes or coaching – needs to be recognised by employers. Our profession can ensure that these activities are underpinned by a lifelong learning culture across the whole organisation. 

However, skills policy is not just about business productivity – getting it right on an organisational level results in improvements to job quality and individual wellbeing. Matched skills, development opportunities or levels of autonomy are all linked to job satisfaction and, in turn, to staff retention. Furthermore, these issues are important for recruitment too. We know that more and more applicants are now looking at the whole package – including skills opportunities - and not just salaries. 

The CIPD has a whole range of resources for our members which go into detail of all of these issues and provide advice and practical guidance. You can access them all in one place here. 

Skills and public policy 

Ensuring organisations across the economy succeed is naturally a key public policy priority. The economic prosperity of a country depends on how many people are in work and how productive they are in the workplace. Individual productivity leads to organisational productivity, which then leads to the productivity of the country as a whole. With skills being a key productivity driver, putting in place the right frameworks for skills development is crucial for policy-makers. 

One of the biggest challenges across the whole of the UK in recent years has been over-qualification – young people leaving education unable to find employment at the level they have achieved. This suggests inefficiencies in the relationship between skills development and the labour market. And it is a serious problem. In fact, OECD data suggest the UK has one of the highest rates of over-qualification internationally. Policy-makers have the tools – be it fiscal or regulatory – to match skills supply to projected demand, but some of the required changes are difficult and even controversial. A prime example is the rebalancing of academic and vocational education, both in terms of funding and status. 

Speaking of rebalancing, a policy area that has long been neglected is lifelong learning. The importance of upskilling and reskilling has never been greater, both in the context of our COVID-19 recovery and the significant economic changes due to the arrival of Industry 4.0. Deep changes to our economies, coupled with demographic changes, will require additional investment in adult skills development. 

But governments don’t just play a role as a deliverer of programmes or investment. Governments can act as enablers too and take steps to remove barriers to skills development opportunities. And we do know barriers certainly exist, be it for those with caring responsibilities, those with disabilities or those who simply can’t afford to take the time off work for financial reasons. Investing in childcare, supporting employment programmes or providing direct financial support to employers or employees are all on policy-makers’ agendas. 

What next in Northern Ireland? 

Understanding the value of skills to individuals, employers and the country as a whole – and making changes when needed – is just as important to public policy as it is to HR practice. Indeed, the two should work hand in hand. 

The Department for the Economy has last month published its long-anticipated skills strategy for consultation – Skills for a 10x Economy. It looks to set the direction for the development of a flexible skills system for the next decade, covering most of the issues in this blog - from essential skills, through the right mix of qualifications, to the importance of a lifelong learning culture. The consultation also recognises that skills policy cannot exist in a silo and that it interacts with other policy areas too – including job quality. 

The opportunity for the CIPD to shape policy in Northern Ireland has therefore never been greater. The expertise, views and experiences of you – our members – are invaluable to those interested in the world of work. We have set up a short survey to help us inform our consultation response, but we also 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.

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