2022: economic ambitions must become economic reality for decade ahead


IT'S always nice to start the New Year with resolutions to do better. Exercise more, eat healthily, read a book a fortnight, make more time for friends and family - all those good things that commit you to improvement and create a sense of optimism at the beginning of the year.

The Financial Times recently ran a series of articles on “Wellbeing and fitness, seven ways to kick start 2022”. Within that series one article that caught my eye was “Healthy Habits to Boost Productivity”, providing insights from a few senior global chief executives on how to raise output and take control over work habits.

Some of them have used life coaches to help them improve performance, but ultimately, it appears from reading the article that just getting the balance right between “healthy bursts of work” and leaving time for rest is the biggest recommendation when it comes to personal productivity.

For businesses too, there will be a strong desire to really make 2022 count as a year of success. Having endured a tough 2021 when they were forced to battle difficulties on multiple fronts, Northern Irish firms will have ambitions to make up for lost ground in terms of growth, productivity and investment.

Last year was characterised by labour shortages, supply chain issues and post-Brexit adjustments – all alongside the pandemic – meaning companies across the economy finding themselves pushed to the limit of their endurance. Many of these challenges have not disappeared and local chief executives will also be battling another added pressure, inflation, in the months ahead.

There has never been a more critical time for firms to raise their performance. As I talk to chief executives across Northern Ireland, they don't talk about “New Year resolutions”, but they do talk about squaring up to their current challenges and their plans for success and growth over the next five years.

Seeing the big picture and taking a strategic approach undoubtedly will help to overcome the short-term challenges that they face. Without doubt long-term success for local companies will stem from a greater commitment to investing in their staff, upskilling, and reskilling the workforce, raising levels of innovation and global sales and, of course, investing in technology and digital solutions to improve productivity and competitiveness.

The Stormont Executive, too, have ambitions for a better economy in Northern Ireland which chime well with business ambitions. The 10x Economic Strategy has focused on the region's current strengths and the areas where Northern Ireland can be a global leader in the next decade. Again, by thinking about where we would like the economy to be ten years from now, it puts current challenges in perspective and forces the Executive to make the necessary decisions today to shape and improve our future economy.

There is no doubt that Northern Ireland's economic ambitions are heavily reliant on greater investment in education and skills as well as investing in infrastructure and connectivity. Just as local firms need to commit to investing in their workforce through training and life-long learning opportunities, the Executive also must ensure that they sufficiently invest in our local skills strategy so that our economic vision of a better economy for can be realised.

Like firms and the devolved government, the CBI too has committed to taking strategic steps that we think will improve the economy right across all UK regions in 2022 and beyond. In spring last year, we launched our flagship economic strategy called ‘Seize the Moment', a bold blueprint for growth and shared prosperity over the coming decade.

Our economic vision highlights six key areas for action – decarbonisation, innovation, globalisation, regional success, changing workforce and health – as well as the pathways to success for each of them. All of these areas for action are equally applicable to Northern Ireland's overall success and indeed are consistent with the Department's economic plan.

So business is getting ready. The local Executive is getting ready and the CBI is ready. Eyes must now turn to the UK government to show its hand on regional growth strategies. The long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper is due early in the new year and has the potential to co-ordinate economic growth ambitions, enrich lives and people's prospects across Northern Ireland, as well as other UK regions.

Local businesses stand ready to work with government to make 2022 the year where we move from ambition to action. There is no doubt that the year ahead will be tricky with inflation and labour shortages; but with co-operation and a laser focus on the “areas for action” we can truly begin creating an economy that works for everyone across the UK.

:: Angela McGowan is CBI Northern Ireland director

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