Business

New focus is rightly on creating wealth and health

Investment needed for Industry 4.0, automation and artificial intelligence and the training required to up-skill and re-skill the workforce to meet the challenge of a changing workplace
Stephen Kelly

The new chair and chief executive of Invest NI have invited the business community in to have a chat. It is part of the process of designing a new four-year plan for the organisation - a plan fit for purpose, delivered by a new leadership team and recognising the new economic and political environment in which we will find ourselves in come final arrival of Brexit on January 1 next year.

But as Simon Hamilton, chief executive of Belfast Chamber, pointed out, this is the first time our Executive has not placed jobs and the economy as the focus of their plans. Instead, it is health and wellbeing and those who care for us, which is the focus of the electorate, so it's right our ministers and MLAs concentrate on these areas.

All the evidence shows that where people get the opportunity to enjoy the dignity of work, where you have wealth, then you have health - healthy people, healthy families, healthy communities.

So, as the Executive conclude their planning of a new Programme for Government, as ministers put their own stamp on the work of their departments, it is important that providing the conditions for our firms to create wealth and work is supported.

But in a new political environment, where the wellbeing is the primary metric of a successful country (rather that economic growth), then we need to ensure that investments and interventions are simple, shared and supported by everyone.

So, let me be the first to pitch.

The first area is ‘productive and prosperous people'.

Firms and our government investing in finally tackling our productivity problem but sharing the benefits of that productivity gain by investing more in skills development, workplace wellbeing and benefits including of course wages.

It will mean that the Executive must commit to support or indeed rebuild parts of our economy and areas of the country. There is no reason why we can't redesign our public sector procurement to ensure our local supply chain for goods and services primarily benefits with selection based on social and economic impact not just lowest price.

A big increase in our skills investment is critical. This includes increasing support for our colleges, lifting the MaSN Cap and our businesses getting access to their Apprenticeship Levy money if they provide the guarantee of work.

It also requires supporting the capital investment needed for Industry 4.0, automation and artificial intelligence and the training investment to up-skill and re-skill the workforce to meet the challenge of a changing workplace. We are exploring much of this during our Manufacturing Month this March.

The second areas is that we should develop the ‘best connected region in the world'.

The prime minister is signalling that his legacy will be his ambitious infrastructure plan – rail lines, telecoms, buses and, of course, bridges. Our Executive should be pushing at an open doors if they come forward with an ambitious plan to better connect the region by funding our roads, railways and broadband. But we need to see our authorities getting much better in getting projects delivered quickly.

Best connected is also about investing in our UK, EU and international presence and markets. Boris' Irish Sea border may diminish our place in the UK's market, but we will end up uniquely having access (if a little constrained) to both the UK and EU regardless of a trade deal later this year. We need to start selling this benefit.

And finally, best connected is about working better together. Political, business and civic society working together to deliver better outcomes and prosperity. This includes business increasing their collaboration with other businesses, with academia and with the workforce.

The 2020s could be a difficult decade, if we allow it to be. Yes, there are problems we need to solve. But if we focus on productive and prosperous people and being better connected, then we could create the wealth and health our people and businesses and our politicians wish for.

:: Stephen Kelly (stephenkelly@manufacturingni.org) is chief executive of Manufacturing NI (www.manufacturingni.org)

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Business