Business

ANDREW WEBB: A different path for skills development

Career explorers choosing the right subjects becomes vital if the ambition of the Department for the Economy’s 10X Economy vision is to be realised and captured
Career explorers choosing the right subjects becomes vital if the ambition of the Department for the Economy’s 10X Economy vision is to be realised and captured Career explorers choosing the right subjects becomes vital if the ambition of the Department for the Economy’s 10X Economy vision is to be realised and captured

I AM predictable enough to theme my articles to obvious key points in the year – tourism ahead of the summer, retail in the run up to Christmas and so on.

It being September, as much as I want to go on a rant about the cost of school uniforms, I’ll stick to my more traditional look at skills. For many young people, GCSE results will see progression to A-Levels and A-Level results see a significant proportion go off to university. For others, the path is not as ‘typical’ as that but can be exceptionally rewarding.

Before looking at those alternative routes, it is worth highlighting a couple of points around our education system and our NEETs – young people Not in Education, Employment or Training.

I highlight NEETs because I fear we still champion the line that we have a world class education system. No doubt it is world class for many but we still have a significant proportion of our school pupils who are not achieving at least five GCSEs at grades A*-C (8.1 per cent).

When two of the five GCSEs have to be in maths and English, the proportion not achieving the 5 GCSEs A*-C increases to 22 per cent.

There is a stark difference in performance between people who are entitled to free school meals and those who are not. Four in every ten of those entitled to free school meals do not achieve the grades. This is more than double the rate (16 per cent) for those who are not entitled to free school meals.

As the Centre for Research in Educational Underachievement at Stranmillis University College noted: “A long tail of underachievement belies Northern Ireland’s reputation for producing academically high-achieving pupils.”

Some of these people will end up adding to the NEET cohort each year. There were an estimated 18,000 young people aged 16 to 24 years in Northern Ireland who were NEET in April to June 2023, the most recent reading. This was almost one in ten of all those aged 16 to 24 years in Northern Ireland.

NEETs has been a significant challenge here for decades and while 18,000 is much too big a number, it would be wrong not to acknowledge that over the last decade we have made some really impressive strides in reducing NEETs.

Back in early 2015, the number was more than double current estimates, at 39,000. For all our economic performance challenges, this is an achievement that should be lauded.

Obviously the exceptional labour market performance has created plentiful opportunities for people to find employment but I wonder if the successful shift in NEET numbers is also because we have clearer and more effective routes for those students who don’t ‘make the grade’ at GCSE?

ApprenticeshipsNI aims to provide participants with level 2 and level 3 qualifications and with paid employment from day one. Since the start of the programme in 2013 and 2021/22, 51,618 participants started ApprenticeshipsNI.

The most current enrolment figures of almost 6,000 are roughly 1,000 higher than a decade ago, suggesting greater awareness and attractiveness of this approach.

New figures on the average earnings in the years immediately following an apprenticeship show some decent money being earned for people at the start of their careers. For example, two years after an apprenticeship, people working in manufacturing are earning £22,800 and across all sectors, former apprentices are averaging almost £18,000.

The median for the whole Northern Ireland economy is about £25,000 per year. So, there are increasingly good options available to a broader range of students in Northern Ireland and while it seems alternative options are growing in popularity an external review of careers advice here found that pupils, students, career changers and their influencers (schools, parents, Jobs & Benefits offices etc) find it difficult to access appropriate career information and once transitions are required eg UCAS, job application, Assured Skills etc, they find themselves confused by the variety of options and gravitate towards the most convenient or ‘tried and tested’ option.

Career explorers choosing the right subjects becomes vital if the ambition of the Department for the Economy’s 10X Economy vision is to be realised and captured. This places a greater onus on careers information, advice, and guidance to give career explorers and their influencers the right information for them to make real informed choices for their career.

I have written previously about the prize available to Northern Ireland from achieving a better balance between the skills we are producing and the skills employers want.

As the big investment conference rolls into town, our skills story will be one of our key selling points. We have a good story to tell already but improvements are always possible.

One such area is in building better links between schools and employers, keeping our careers advisers connected with industry advancements, in terms of technology and therefore careers information.

Then we can guide our students towards the best path for them, and not just the traditional route.

:: Andrew Webb is chief economist at Grant Thornton