Northern Ireland Skills Barometer 2021

Northern Ireland Skills Barometer 2021

By Marek Zemanik, Senior Public Policy Adviser at the CIPD in Northern Ireland 

As the immediate concerns over the pandemic impact on the Northern Irish economy abated, new challenges reared their heads – be it labour and skills shortages or rising inflation. While the reasons for these are complex and sometimes global, domestic public policy interventions are crucial to ensuring there is alignment between the supply of and demand for skills. 

Of course, all of this depends on good evidence, which is why we welcomed the publication of the latest Northern Ireland Skills Barometer last month. This is a short blog outlining what it tells us and highlights three areas of direct impact on our profession – careers advice, lifelong learning and soft skills. After all, matching skills to the needs of organisations is at the heart of what our members do. 

What is a skills barometer? 

The Skills Barometer is published by Ulster University’s Economic Policy Centre (UUEPC), which has developed an economic model to forecast future skills needs and skills gaps, broken down by qualification level, subject area and sector for Northern Ireland. The 2021 update report is the fourth publication since its inception in 2015 and covers the coming decade to 2030. 

It is a long and detailed document, underpinned by a lot of quantitative and qualitative analysis. The near-200 pages contain innumerable graphs and charts, which provide a deep dive the future skill requirements for Northern Ireland. Not only is this data useful for policy-makers, it is also aimed at employers who may be nudged to think about their evolving skills needs even further. 

Key insights 

It is challenging to condense the findings into a short blog, but the key insights relate to the estimated employment growth across sectors, the demand for labour, and supply of skills. All combined, the report then identifies the key gaps and makes some recommendations of relevance to policy-makers and employers. Many of these align with public policy calls the CIPD made in our own Northern Irish Assembly election manifesto earlier this year. 

The findings reflect the changing nature of the Northern Irish economy, with the high-growth scenario assuming a rapid employment growth in sectors with a high demand for higher level skills. In absolute terms, the largest growth is expected in the professional services sector, followed by the information and communication sector and health and social work. These changes are then reflected in the overall future demand for labour from education and migration. 

Self-evidently, changes to migration patterns play a role here. It is important to recognise that there is significant uncertainty about the post-pandemic and post-Brexit levels of migration to Northern Ireland. Evidence shows that the number of non-UK nationals applying for a National Insurance number has been declining since the Brexit referendum result in 2016. However, applications have also been significantly impacted by the pandemic and it remains to be seen whether we will see a return to pre-pandemic levels of migrant in-flows. That being said, at least in the short term we are likely to continue to see labour shortages across industries reliant on migrant labour. 

When it comes to qualifications, the highest demand is projected to be for degree-level qualifications (NQF level 6+), accounting for 37% of the annual net requirement. A similar proportion (35%) of vacancies is projected to be at levels 3-5, which is where most apprenticeships and much of FE education sit. Combining this projected demand with the estimated supply allows the Barometer to estimate where the biggest gaps are likely to be. 

Overall, the supply of qualifications in Northern Ireland - with relatively few mid-level skills provided by the education system – means that the Barometer projects an undersupply of qualifications at level 3 and above. This emphasises the importance of more technical and vocational skills acquired through Further Education and apprenticeships – supporting our manifesto call for a rebalancing of public funding towards more vocational routes. 

However, there is also a projected undersupply at Higher Education level, where the primary problem is the mix of subjects. Over two-fifths of HE qualifiers are within three subject areas: medical related subjects, business and financial related studies and social studies - a high concentration of graduates within a narrow range of subjects. The largest oversupply is in social studies, which includes a wide range of subject areas like sociology, economics, politics or social work. Conversely, it is STEM related subjects are the most undersupplied, particularly Engineering & Technology, Mathematics & Computer Science and Physical/Environmental Sciences. Encouraging more students - and particularly young women - into these routes should be a priority and careers advice services are key. 

The role of public policy and employers 

Many of the factors that contribute to the skills mismatches are longer-term trends – migration changes, large economic transitions, persisting inequalities, an ageing workforce etc. But it is the role of policy-makers to put in place interventions that can shift the dial and it is up to employers and people professionals to both tap into these and invest more in training directly. 

The most significant development in this space has been the publication of the final Skills Strategy just two weeks ago. This is an ambitious document that, drawing on evidence from the Barometer, sets clear priorities and targets. The CIPD contributed to the draft strategy consultation and has been invited to sit on the newly-established Skills Council. The plans in the strategy cover a range of areas and will clearly need to be underpinned by cross-departmental buy-in – not least when it comes to funding. That being said, I wanted to highlight three areas that stood out in the Barometer and are recognised in the strategy too. 

First, the crucial importance of careers advice. One of the starkest warnings in the Barometer were in relation to young people’s career expectations. It highlights data from the OECD’s PISA study, which shows that virtually no students aged 15 expected to work in a low skilled occupation by the time they reached 30, regardless of their academic achievement or social background. A separate study of British teenagers aged 13-18 found that their career expectations had little in common with expected patterns of labour market demand. Pupils should be able to make informed choices regarding career aspirations and subject choices. Furthermore, given the scale of the challenge in attracting education leavers to seek a career in sectors that are not perceived as ‘high status’, it is imperative that careers guidance promotes opportunities across all economic sectors. 

Second, the need to boost upskilling and expand the lifelong learning offer in Northern Ireland, something we focused on in our 2022 election manifesto too. The latest statistics shows that we have the lowest proportion of people in employment receiving job related education or training of any UK region. And this is not a recent development, it has been the case consistently. Of course, in a tight labour market the ability to offer support to employees to upskill will be an important recruitment method and we know from conversations with you that applicants are increasingly interested in career and skill development opportunities. 

Looking beyond recruitment, we know that in a rapidly changing world skills acquired during formal education or in prior employment can become obsolete more quickly. Lifelong learning is therefore absolutely crucial if we are to meet the challenges of the fast transitions. Creating a culture of lifelong learning is one of the pillars of the new skills strategy. Of course, this will require new routes to skills, targeted interventions, but also broader steps to remove barriers to participation, especially those furthest away from the skills development system. We suggested a form of training leave or a targeted subsidy to cover lost income, coupled with enhanced individual learning accounts, could help. 

Third, the increasing importance of soft/meta/transversal skills. As with lifelong learning, in a rapidly changing world these skills are key to accessing employment, career progression and becoming resilient to shocks. The Barometer lists communication, digital skills, leadership, and problem solving/analytical as the most important soft skills identified by NI graduate employers. Of course, employers themselves have a key role to play here since the most direct way of developing these types of skills is prior work experience. Developing links between education providers (e.g. schools) and employers, facilitating internships and linking in with careers advice can make a real difference. 

These are just three areas that directly impact on the work of our profession. In fact, improving the skills/qualification match across the NI economy is contingent on our members who often have the best handle on the people needs in their own organisations. It is our members who are making the case for a strategic approach to skills needs, stronger training budgets or deeper links to local education providers. We will continue to support them with the best guidance and evidence we have.