I have written many economic strategies over the past 15 or so years so I know they are not easy to do. There is a constant challenge to try and deliver something unique when, deep down, we all know the economic weak spots are so obvious and ingrained that a rollover would do just as well. The release of NI’s latest economic growth plan reminded me of another of my stalled lockdown projects where I’ve been trying to get all the economic development strategies in NI’s 100 year history. Like my other lockdown plans, it hasn’t gone as well as I thought but what I have been able to piece together is that economic development here has been grappling with a productivity challenge, economic inactivity, poor levels of innovation, significant regional disparities in economic performance, a yearning for more inward investment, a desire to be entrepreneurial, a constant itch to sell more exports and a challenge around our skills levels for as at least half a century, and in all likelihood since the formation of NI.
The 10x economy continues in this vein and has a vision of a decade of innovation that will deliver a ten times better economy. Joining the 10x Economy stable was a ‘Skills for a 10x Economy’ strategy, which is out for consultation. The skills strategy acknowledges the skills of our people are the primary driver of our success. While there is invariably a strong focus on ensuring we have higher level skills to service the demand in vibrant ‘high value added’ sectors such as cyber security and advanced manufacturing it was encouraging to see the ongoing challenge of people with ‘low or no qualifications’ is cited as an area to continue addressing.
This cohort of people with low or no qualifications often find themselves very distant from the labour market, with limited opportunity to engage - drifting. In our labour market statistics, if you are under the age of 24 in this group you are NEET – not in education, employment or training.
According to the latest Labour Force Survey there are 84,000 young people aged 16-24 in employment, 7,000 unemployed and 107,000 are economically inactive, primarily as students, carers or being sick/disabled.
Within this total there are 21,000 young people classified as NEETs. This is a fairly stubborn figure. In 2013, there were 33,000 people classified as NEET. On current figures, one in ten people here aged 16-24 is Not in Education, Employment or Training. This rate is higher than England and Scotland but below the Welsh rate of almost 13%.
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In the midst of the new economic plans of recent weeks, it was good to see practical, and proven, actions being taken, with the final call for projects to apply for around £46m in funding under the NI European Social Fund Programme (ESF) announced. The programmes that have been funded via this fund to date have helped over 76,000 people move from economic inactivity into education, training and employment. When Grant Thornton evaluated the programme recently, we found that significant achievements were evident in addressing employability among hard to reach groups. A key strength of NI ESF has been the flexibility of the programme and the ability for programme deliverers to invest time and energy into relationship building and provision of tailored, demand driven supports. In the context of a potentially exceptionally challenging ‘post Covid-19’ labour market, there are likely to be complex employability challenges emerging and this flexibility to tailor supports will be essential.
A further fillip for practical intervention is emerging through Labour Market Partnerships. As the Department for Communities starts to roll out more employment schemes, there is a push to ensure that local needs are fully reflected in programme design. This initiative will see Labour Market Partnerships across each of our 11 council areas. Having been involved in developing a Labour Market Partnership plan with one of our councils, I’m encouraged that these partnerships can take the best of previous schemes and amplify the specific labour market challenges or barriers to participation. It doesn’t always have to be about a shiny new strategy. Doing more of what works can be just as effective.