Covid–19 in Northern Ireland – a new economic vision.
This week we brought together a group to discuss our recent briefing paper on a ‘New Economic Vision’ for Northern Ireland.
The group included a range of people from business, economics, social enterprise and trade unions to discuss three main questions:
1. We have known about Northern Ireland’s low skills and low productivity for decades. Why haven’t previous strategies led to any substantial change?
2. What new approaches have a chance of transforming our economy?
3. What, practically and specifically, should policy makers do? What should we (Pivotal and others) do to drive this change forward?
It was a wide–ranging and useful discussion. Below are some highlights:
Proper joint working across government is required to build a future–facing Northern Ireland economy.
The Northern Ireland Executive is built without a pre–existing sense of common purpose. This is compounded by the isolation of individual departments and a history of difficult working relationships. In practice this means that decisions on economic policy are usually seen as the responsibility of just the Department for the Economy, when in fact what is required is a joint focus and commitment across the whole of the Executive.
If the challenge of recovery from C–19 is properly grasped, it could provide Northern Ireland with an opportunity for a genuine cross–government economic strategy which addresses historical economic challenges including low skills, low productivity and high levels of economic inactivity. The Executive should commit to a common vision for the economy, and departments should work collectively to delivery it. This will require a new level of ambition, leadership and joint working.
Addressing the economy’s underlying weaknesses is a long–term strategy. There have been many different interventions in the past that have aimed to tackle these issues, with some limited success. What is needed now is a sustained strategy which is pursued collectively and persistently, with a focus not on what spending or programmes are announced, but on ensuring that real changes to outcomes are delivered.
Northern Ireland needs a skills revolution to transform our economic landscape
Northern Ireland faces skills shortages in some areas, but also an imbalance in the profile of skills across the workforce. There is an over–supply of skills in some areas (e.g. teacher training) and a shortage of people with qualifications in other areas (e.g. NVQs, Higher Apprenticeships). Skill shortages in Northern Ireland both contribute to, and maintain, low productivity.
A comprehensive skills and training policy is required to transform skills development across Northern Ireland, particularly interventions for young people and those in lower skilled employment. Policy makers need to bridge the skills gap for workers within the lower quartile skill levels to progress to mid–scale training levels. This up–skilling would enhance productivity and growth, and provide opportunities for social mobility.
Future skill development policies should place digital literacy at the centre of their approach to ensure that Northern Ireland is prepared for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) which will see a significant increase in automation and artificial intelligence throughout society. The workforce requires support to become digitally enabled, particularly with the rise in demand for digital services following C–19.
Skills and training reform for young people aged 14–19 should be a particular area of focus. Consideration should be given to the provision of enhanced digital skills learning within the national curriculum and leadership skills to prepare young people for the workplace. Policy makers may wish to consider work completed by the Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI) who have developed ambitious goals to prepare for the future of skills and the 4IR as a model of good practice.
Developing and sustaining inclusive growth in Northern Ireland
The recovery from C–19 may provide Northern Ireland with an opportunity to consider the interconnectedness of social and economic issues. There is a need for genuine social partnership between business, society and the Executive to develop employment that is both meaningful and productive, offering good pay, condition and prospects.
Policy planning needs to be ambitious when providing increased opportunities to those in lower skilled roles, those in low income households and those with additional needs. Social enterprises are one proven approach to offer both economic and social value within communities, providing grass–roots growth. Reviewing procurement procedures is one route that could be considered as a way to increase the social value gained from government spending.
Whilst the UK government and the Executive have provided economic support to businesses during C–19, it is important that measures are now put in place to support economic recovery. Many businesses will need support to be sustainable post C–19, maintain growth and offer opportunities for the wider community.
The group discussion echoed many of the points raised in our economic paper and extends points within the areas of joint working across government and inclusive growth.
There is an overarching theme of the importance of future economic policy addressing the economy’s underlying weaknesses, particularly low skill levels, whilst responding to the immediate economic downturn.
Pivotal remains open to ongoing discussion about these issues and we would welcome feedback via our social media platforms and our website.