2021 has the potential to be a year of growth and renewal

News that Pfizer and BioNTech have reached a breakthrough in the hunt for a coronavirus vaccine also offers a ray of hope amid the gloom

IT’S no exaggeration to say that most businesses across Northern Ireland have never faced a more challenging year than 2020. And with lockdowns intensifying over October and November, it doesn’t feel as though the winter will bring much respite.

But I believe 2021 has the potential to be a year of growth and renewal. Despite significant setbacks, even in the hardest of times, Northern Ireland firms have found innovative ways to keep employees and customers safe in 2020, which will be continued in the new year. News that Pfizer and BioNTech have reached a breakthrough in the hunt for a coronavirus vaccine also offers a ray of hope amid the gloom.

And after a sharp economic contraction this year, the Northern Ireland economy is still expected to see growth of around 7 per cent next year. That’s testament to the planning and resilience of local businesses.

For all these reasons, firms have high hopes for the new year and look forward to the fresh start. That’s why they’re doing all they can to lay the foundations for economic recovery - changing how they do business, how they reach out to customers and how they adopt new digital, low carbon solutions.

Of course, the right conditions and support need to be in place to help businesses achieve these aims and build back from the pandemic.

For one, securing a deal with the EU by January will be crucial. Companies will no doubt be very busy in quarters one and two getting their IT systems changed, adapting to new administrative processes and re-adjusting supply chains and capital allocations as needed. Striking a deal sooner rather than later will give business the clarity it needs on tariffs, quotas and trading arrangements, paving the way for greater investment.

It will also help with the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Yes, we’re all tired of talking about it, but getting that right really is essential to the way businesses here operate moving forward.

Strong public-private collaboration, cooperation between firms and sharing of best practice have all been markers of 2020. Continuing this into the new year will be key to deliver optimised outcomes and much needed economic growth.

In 2021, we must also shift from a focus on job protection to job creation. Sadly, it’s almost certain that jobs will be lost because of Covid-19 and Brexit pressures. Next year there will also be a cohort of graduates and school leavers who have been unable to undertake work experience or successfully pursue job opportunities due to sluggish economic growth.

That means we have to go further and faster to increase investment in upskilling and retraining. That’s the bedrock of our economic recovery. Northern Ireland’s forthcoming Skills Strategy must remain firmly fixed on the long-term and the future economy. Covid-19 has only accelerated changes to the nature of work.

2021 will be a year for gearing up future employees with the skills that they need for a greener, more digital economy. But developing the skills of the existing labour market alone will not be sufficient for sustainable economic growth. Northern Ireland must also think about attracting new talent to the region.

There are opportunities to do this, perhaps pushing for an all-island work visa so firms operating in the all-island economy can move international talent freely across the island. Maybe attracting migrants from Hong Kong who have UK residency rights and also focusing on attracting back talent through the Irish diaspora.

2021 is also a year to ramp up investment in infrastructure to drive economic growth. In the year ahead, lower interest rates will provide a great opportunity to allocate private and public resources to the delivery of infrastructure needed for a modern high-growth economy. This must be backed up with an agile planning system and reduced departmental silos to ensure the delivery of priority infrastructure projects.

More than ever, devising a long-term vision for the economy is key to securing sustainable economy recovery.

An overarching economic strategy which recognises the role of reskilling in bringing about the delivery of new infrastructure, digital transformation and a green transition will be essential to make 2021 a success. And the CBI will be working collaboratively with our partners in Stormont, Westminster and beyond to make that happen.

Angela McGowan is CBI Northern Ireland director

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