Northern Ireland news

Matthew O'Toole: We should be offering young people the chance to make their lives and careers here

SDLP MLA Matthew O'Toole. Picture by Peter Morrison/PA Wire.
Matthew O'Toole

WALKING around the university area of south Belfast in the sunshine, where my constituency office is, you'd be forgiven for wondering why anyone is concerned about the question of ‘brain drain’ and the attractiveness of this place to young people.

There are loads of able young people. But most of us know that there is a problem. A recent report by the think-tank Pivotal highlighted the acute problem we face with retaining and regaining talent.

And it isn't just that young people, graduates especially, feel a ‘pull’ to live, travel and study elsewhere – that’s healthy and natural – it’s that Northern Ireland creates unhelpful ‘push’ factors shoving them out the door. One of them, we all know, is the slowness of this place to deliver societal change.

Meanwhile, our civil service is struggling. Multiple reports – including the RHI inquiry - have highlighted real problems with its capacity to deliver real change against the hugely complex challenges we face.

But there is also the question of age. Just over one per cent of the more than 20,000-strong civil service workforce is under 25, and of the senior grades, only 20 per cent are under 50. These numbers are shocking – this is a looming workforce crisis.

These are two challenges – talented young people hungry for change but leaving these shores in droves and an aging, struggling civil service – which need addressed together.

The SDLP is today proposing an ambitious new public service recruitment scheme called the Make Change Programme. We want to get those ambitious young people into civil service careers, but with a difference: they will embark on intensive training programme and will be assigned projects with specific outcomes matched to the new executive Programme for Government.

What does this mean in practice? They will be working on intensive projects outside dusty departments: that could mean coordinating a youth literacy project across inner city Belfast charities and community projects; it could mean project managing sustainability project across local authorities.

Critically, it will offer young people the change not just of a prestigious, challenging career: it will offer them a chance to make real change in this society. Initiatives like Teach First in England, which places graduates in struggling schools at the start of their careers, or the famous Peace Corps in the US have shown that young people desperately want the opportunity to improve the lives of others. We just need to give them the chance.

And it won’t just be for new graduates: our proposal includes a Make Change apprenticeship scheme for school leavers who will earn a professional qualification and get the opportunity for further advance, and a route for experienced professionals – a 30 something teacher or a 40 something engineer – to enter the civil service and change this place for the better.

Whatever our constitutional future, there are acute problems here that we know are deeper than anywhere else on these islands – whether in our low skill economy or our crisis-ridden health service. And of course, like everywhere on the planet, the transition to low carbon will require monumental effort and ingenuity.

We have an amazing resource to address these challenges that we aren’t using – talented young people who want to change this society not simply leave it. We should be offering them the chance to make their lives and careers here, making positive change for everyone.

:: Matthew O'Toole is an SDLP MLA for South Belfast

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