Angela McGowan: Training is key to making this region a dynamic hub

The Department for the Economy's economic recovery plan, launched earlier this year by minister Diane Dodds, includes a welcome focus on improving energy efficiency and encouraging green innovation - exactly the kind of clear direction employers need

IT was fantastic to mark Northern Ireland Apprenticeship Week last week – a real opportunity for the business community to celebrate the positive impact these programmes are having on our region.

Time and time again CBI members tell us how apprenticeships strengthen their business while affording young people and adults the opportunity to develop practical and soft skills on the job. And in doing so they support local communities as well as the wider economy.

The focus on skills development during this year’s Apprenticeship Week is timely given businesses’ ambitions of rebuilding Northern Ireland’s economy from the shock of Covid-19. Notably the Department for the Economy is in the process of developing a new skills strategy. As highlighted by the OECD’s recent assessment of Northern Ireland’s skills landscape, ensuring the region has a resilient and responsive training system will be crucial to recovery.

I believe that if we get our skills strategy right – and if the Executive implements the NI Economic Recovery Plan – we have every hope of doing so. Northern Ireland has a golden opportunity to a create future-focussed, highly competitive economy. But reaching this goal will also require us to prepare for the incoming tide of decarbonisation.

Northern Ireland’s recovery from the pandemic is fundamentally intertwined with the race to net zero. We can only truly build back better if we make substantial progress in meeting these critical targets. The build-up to COP26 in Glasgow later this year offers a platform for the Executive, the UK Government and business to have this vital conversation. Everyone has a part to play in delivering the innovation needed to accelerate our response to climate change.

In this lies both challenge and opportunity for Northern Ireland. On the one hand, the region is still reliant on fossil fuels. A significant push will be needed to power the shift to a decarbonised economy, from replacing people’s home boilers to developing electric vehicles.

CBI research shows that this process can be a massive driver of new jobs. As renewable energy generation grows the region will need trained professionals capable of doing everything from replacing outdated systems to designing clean alternatives and delivering project proposals.

The key word here is training. The nature of the task before us means only a seismic upskilling effort will help Northern Ireland meet the recruitment needs of green industries. With so many jobs and livelihoods sadly lost due to the pandemic – and an uncertain few months still ahead – Northern Ireland has a unique opportunity to get people into new jobs and bounce back. Our region can become a dynamic hub that attracts the best talent to work in its green economy. To create better alignment between employer demand for green skills that will only grow in the years to come and the existing supply, the Executive should consider three key issues.

Firstly, there is a significant task ahead to create greater public awareness around the path to net-zero. Without this knowledge, individuals are less likely to consider career opportunities in fields like home efficiency, electric vehicles, and clean power. We can and should inspire more people to take up these jobs of the future. This can also dovetail with efforts to support the growing consumer market.

Secondly, the Executive should use the momentum around the UK Government’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, the NI Economic Recovery Plan, and the forthcoming Skills and Energy Strategies to send a signal which gives more firms the certainty they need to invest in skills for a decarbonised future. The Ten Point Plan sets out a broad vision for the priority sector transitions needed to achieve net-zero emissions. The Economic Recovery Plan includes a welcome focus on improving energy efficiency, encouraging green innovation, enabling a low carbon workforce, developing the Hydrogen Economy and boosting green growth. This is exactly the kind of clear direction employers need. The Executive should double down on it at every opportunity.

Finally, industry will need to prepare employees for the transition to a greener economy by supporting them to upskill, whether that’s through apprenticeships or other forms of training. But it is likely some people will need to exit certain jobs rather than retrain. There is an important role for the Executive here to support the development of skills to help keep people in work as they move between different industries.

Now is the time for the Executive, the business community and education providers to join forces, creating clear pathways for sectors and communities to decarbonise, and for individuals to thrive in this new landscape.

That means turning our attention to how we support people to confidently take on new roles. For that, our skills system must be fit for purpose, and in perfect alignment with our green ambitions.

:: Angela McGowan is CBI Northern Ireland director

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