Skill Shortages

Oral Answers to Questions — Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 26th February 2001.

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Photo of Mr Mervyn Carrick Mr Mervyn Carrick DUP 3:00 pm, 26th February 2001

5. asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail the steps he is taking to address the external skills shortages identified in the Northern Ireland skills monitoring survey 2000.

(AQO 886/00)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

9. asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail what areas of skill shortage he has identified and to outline the steps he is taking to address them.

(AQO 880/00)

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

15. asked the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to detail discussions he has undertaken with specific employment sectors on the issue of skills shortages.

(AQO 903/00)

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

With your agreement, Mr Deputy Speaker, I intend to answer questions 5, 9 and 15 together, as they all touch on similar issues.

The recent skills monitoring report provides essential information that will assist in targeting resources on specific industry sectors and occupations where skills needs exist. It is one of a number of sources of information brought together by the skills task force.

In addressing skills needs, I meet regularly with industry representatives on a sectoral, cross-sectoral and individual basis. As a consequence, a range of initiatives has been put in place, including additional targeted higher and further education places and additional modern apprenticeships. I shall remind Members of a response that I made on one occasion regarding the ‘Back to your Future’ initiative which my Department launched before Christmas. This initiative was designed to put current job opportunities before expatriates in the IT and telecom sectors — particularly for those with a number of years of experience. We are experiencing a considerable shortage of experienced personnel in a number of our enterprises and are anxious to encourage our own people who have these skills to come back and avail of these opportunities. Perhaps Members could play a role by bringing news of new opportunities to the attention of acquaintances who possess such skills. These openings are available on an unprecedented level, offering worthwhile career opportunities and quality of life.

Photo of Mr Mervyn Carrick Mr Mervyn Carrick DUP 3:15 pm, 26th February 2001

The Minister has referred to the Northern Ireland Skills Monitoring Survey, 2000. Of all "difficult to fill" vacancies, 43% are based on either a lack of practical skills, a lack of technical skills, a lack of qualifications or a lack of work experience. What immediate steps can the Minister take to address the more prevalent skill shortages? For example, the construction industry has a shortage of 60%; business services suffer a shortage of 56%; and the manufacturing sector is crippled by a shortage of 47%. In addition, the most prevalent external skill shortages in the associated professional and technical occupations amount to 72%. There is a shortage of 52% among managerial and administrative occupations.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

I compliment the Member for his familiarity with the report. Lest percentages deceive us, the report identifies the fact that only approximately 20% to 21% of surveyed employers reported difficulties in recruiting for their vacancies. Therefore, a significant majority are not encountering levels of difficulty of the kind that the Member has drawn to our attention. Of those employers who are encountering difficulties in filling vacancies, some have experienced acute levels of difficulty.

With regard to the immediate steps we are taking, we are in constant contact with the various sectoral training councils, and we work closely with them on all of the training programs. We are also in regular contact with the further education colleges and the universities. Therefore numbers are increased in accordance with the information available to us in respect of training at all levels. We must view our difficulties in the context of the pressures that arise on the labour market — not just internally in Northern Ireland, but also those created by the situations that have emerged in the South.

The need for specific skills in the construction industry has obliged businesses to seek workers from far beyond the shores of Ireland and Britain. The pressures and the associated levels of remuneration cannot be ignored, given the effect that they have on our internal labour market. We should not be complacent; rather we should continue to monitor and address the matter and work with the training providers to ensure that we are meeting the needs of all sectors of the economy to the best of our ability.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Deputy Chairperson of the Higher and Further Education Committee for answering the first part of my question.

Does he recognise that the greatest barrier to eradicating unemployment in Northern Ireland is not an unwillingness among investors to come into the Province? Rather, it is the fact that they cannot get people who are skilled to do the job. What does he intend to do to get unemployed people into a position in which they are able to begin active employment ?

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

We have to be careful about how we describe the scale of the difficulties. The difficulties relate specifically to several expanding sectors of the economy. We need to provide these sectors with the skills of experienced people. That is what motivates Attract Back-style programmes. In a few weeks’ time I hope to be in New York at a major jobs fair, where companies from Northern Ireland and the Republic will draw the attention of our expatriates in that part of the world to the opportunities now available, particularly in the IT sector.

Members should examine the range of training programmes which we provide, directly and indirectly, through our colleges and universities, at basic NVQ level and above. A considerable amount of effort is being made to ensure that we have skilled workers available. There are tailor-made programmes which can be put together under the Bridge to Employment initiative. Employers who identify particular needs can be assisted by the Training and Employment Agency to recruit, and have trained for them, workers who can have a very good opportunity to obtain employment in those enterprises associated with the Bridge to Employment initiative programmes.

We have taken further initiatives by holding discussions with some of the most recent investors, during which we asked them to identify their skills needs and provide in-service courses. When workers are recruited they are guaranteed opportunities on training programmes — with the support of their employers — to acquire certain skills. Such initiatives, and many others, demonstrate a very clear determination on the part of my Department to meet the skills needs of all investors, indigenous or foreign.

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

Does the Minister accept that quality training, particularly in craft and practical skills, can only be provided over a longer term? The current short-term training schemes do not meet the needs of young unemployed people or of the long-term unemployed.

Will the Minister consider increasing resources for modern apprenticeships to provide more worthwhile, value-added training, especially for young people? I am aware that Shorts Bombardier has an excellent training scheme in engineering and technical skills. Perhaps this could be replicated across Northern Ireland.

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member and others in the House should be assured that the formal training programmes available are accessible within an agreed national framework — one which involves the employers through the various sector training councils. The Member mentioned the case of Shorts Bombardier. These courses are designed from the outset to make sure that they meet the needs of the sectors or enterprises.

I hesitate to suggest that any of the courses are inadequate in terms of the needs of the particular sectors or industries. Where there are inadequacies, they tend to be revealed in the course of ongoing monitoring of the achievements and skills levels of those who acquire their NVQ awards and those who complete modern apprenticeships. Any shortcomings will, I trust, be quickly identified and addressed, so that we can guarantee to existing and future employers a workforce trained and skilled to the highest standards of the sectors they are preparing to enter.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

We are not making particularly good progress through the questions, so I ask Members to be as concise as possible in the last five minutes or so.

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP

I note the Minister’s comments about shortages of experienced workers. Does he agree that on occasions employers are their own worst enemies because they impose arbitrary restrictions with respect to age, practising a form of ageism? They exclude applicants who are aged over 25, 35 or 45. Other employers demand graduates when a sub-degree level qualification would be adequate for the job in hand.

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

I agree up to a point with the Member’s comments with respect to the approaches adopted by certain employers. In the course of recent surveys it has been identified that some employers, when seeking to recruit, demand a higher level of qualification than is necessary. Many graduates have had to emigrate because they could not obtain employment here. The oversupply of graduates may well have conditioned employers to seek graduates rather than workers with other levels of skills. That is a matter which employers need to address.

With respect to the issue of ageism, employers are encouraged to follow the guidance in the voluntary code of practice on age diversity in employment which was circulated in June 1999 by the then Department of Economic Development. My Department also helps older workers back into employment through New Deal 50+. Members are probably aware that there is currently no legislation on discrimination in employment on grounds of age, although we could expect this to be considered in the context of the proposed single Equality Bill.