COVID-19: Support for NEETs

Oral Answers to Questions — Economy – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 29th September 2020.

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Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent 2:00 pm, 29th September 2020

2. Ms Sugden asked the Minister for the Economy how she is identifying and supporting young people, not in employment, education or training (NEETs), that feel isolated as a consequence of the response to COVID-19. (AQO 765/17-22)

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

In today's uncertain times, this is an important question for us, as a legislative Assembly, to consider.

My Department provides a range of support to young people who are not in employment, education or training, often referred to as "NEET". My Department administers the Northern Ireland European social fund (ESF) programme, which includes 18 NEET projects with a value of over £33 million. The projects are specifically designed to support young people. Examples of the projects are wide-ranging across Northern Ireland. We have Bryson Charitable Group, Extern, GEMS, Include Youth, Job Directions, the South West College, Springboard, Stepping Stones NI, the Prince's Trust, Training for Women and YouthAction Northern Ireland, so it is really a very wide range of programmes that are supported through this part of my Department.

The Department for the Economy is also the Northern Ireland accountable Department for Peace4Youth, which aims to engage 7,400 young people who are disadvantaged, marginalised and not readily engaging with other programmes. The Careers Service provides all-age, all-ability careers guidance, with a priority focus on helping those vulnerable to social exclusion. Inevitably, the response to COVID-19 and the lockdown, in particular, has made it more difficult to deliver those vital services. However, the services and projects have adapted to continue to provide much-needed support throughout the crisis. In March, Peace4Youth projects swiftly moved to online delivery to continue to support young people. ESF projects also moved to remote working. Some are now back working in their usual premises, where social distancing allows. Since March, the Careers Service has made over 49,000 contacts with 16- to 18-year-olds to guide them in taking the next steps in their education, training or employment.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Do you want to call Claire for a supplementary?

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

Thank you, Deputy Speaker.

I appreciate the Minister's response. She talked about the European social fund: I have been contacted by a number of community and voluntary groups who are concerned about the future of that fund. If it is likely that that fund will no longer have a future, will her Department fund the shortfall, if it becomes an issue?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

That is indeed an important and, again, topical and timely question on the issue. The European social fund funds a range of programmes, not just for young people who are not in employment or training but as part of the Northern Ireland apprenticeship programme. Therefore, it is very important to us that the Executive collectively engage with the UK Government to ensure that our national Government understand that, in the replacement for that European social fund — the shared prosperity fund — Northern Ireland is not at a disadvantage and gains the same amount of funding from that shared prosperity funding as it does from structural funds as they come to Northern Ireland and, importantlyl, that we are able to set our own priorities and objectives for the funding as a devolved legislature with responsibility devolved in those areas. The lead Department for this is the Department of Finance. It has been working on this, and, of course, I will continue to liaise with it and with Departments in London to make sure that those views are known. Current ESF funding is secure until 31 March 2022.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

The Minister will be aware that, since 2007, despite increased investment in Invest NI, it has actually created fewer jobs year on year. Does the Minister agree that we need to hold what we have at the moment and that there should be increased investment in apprenticeships, youth services and our students, so that we create a future for the young people who have been so badly affected by COVID-19?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

It is an important question. I think that the House will agree that, through my actions as Minister for the Economy, we have invested significantly in apprenticeships, youth training and the skills agenda in Northern Ireland. That is not just important for holding what we have but for developing the economy of the future and the skills pipeline that will go into that. That is an important aspect. The Department has been proactive in looking not just at apprenticeships but at careers delivery and other short-term interventions that will help to build the Northern Ireland economy, build skills and engage our young people into the future.

I just want to focus for one second on one of those programmes, which has been very important, namely the assured skills academies that we have run. Those have been very successful in delivering proper training and jobs for young people in difficult circumstances. I refer to the Microsoft cybersecurity academy, which was completed in Northern Ireland on 12 June, delivered at the height of lockdown and delivered completely online. Of the 24 young people who engaged in that skills academy, 23 found employment out of it. Those long-term skills programmes and the ability to be flexible and match skills to labour market demand is really important.

With your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will answer the other part of the Member's question. It is really important that, while we build our skills base and support companies in Northern Ireland, we recognise the importance of foreign direct investment in Northern Ireland. Since April, I have announced over 1,000 new jobs, even in the midst of incredibly difficult economic circumstances in Northern Ireland. Six hundred of those new jobs have been announced by North American and US companies. That shows the importance of those companies investing in Northern Ireland. I look forward to talking to the special envoy to Northern Ireland tomorrow and building the relationships that allow those skills and job pipelines to continue.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I just remind the Minister of the two-minute rule. If you require additional time, perhaps you would ask for it before you answer, please, Minister. Thank you.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

Is the Minister engaging with the Department of Education in order to deliver an effective strategy to deal with young people who are leaving school with low qualifications and at risk of unemployment?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

Before the Assembly collapsed in earlier times, the Minister of Education and the Minister for the Economy were working together on a strategy for 14- to 19-year-olds to look at the pathways that young people take at that age, the choices that they make and how we can improve services for them. Very early on, before the impact of COVID in this mandate, I had been talking to the Department of Education on that issue. We have now re-engaged with that work stream. I would like, in conjunction with the Department of Education, to bring forward a strategy that allows young people at 14 to 19 years old not just to look at traditional paths but to look at alternative paths towards their career prospects. We will help all of our young people in progressing their career prospects. We are also talking about creating that digital spine for Northern Ireland. We will try to incorporate those skills for our young people, right the way through from primary school until they leave education, preparing them for the world of work and the economy of the future.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

The Prime Minister has just announced a scheme in England for adults without an A-level or equivalent qualification where they will have access to a fully funded college course with an emphasis on "skills valued by employers". Can the Minister assure adults in a similar position in this jurisdiction that they will not be disadvantaged?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I am extremely concerned about the 20% of the workforce who have no formal qualifications. It is an issue that the Assembly and the Executive will have to address in the long term. In the short term, we have been working with adults and with everyone, really, who has been affected by the impact of COVID on their employment. Our skills strategy division has been able to support 2,000 individuals impacted by COVID-19, helping them to achieve one of over 90 online fully accredited qualifications in key areas including digital, leadership, management and employability. A second phase of the programme will complete by March 2021. We hope that it will support a further 3,000 individuals, including those who have been furloughed or made redundant or who are availing of the self-employment scheme. It will include collaborative approaches from further education on placement and to support women to return and get training in information technology. That is work that the Department is already engaged in and fully cognisant of.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Minister, will you recognise the despair of my constituents, when you have recently told the House, in a previous answer, that you hope that the UK Government understand the value of EU funds that have been distributed in Northern Ireland? Surely, you and your party would not have dragged us out of the EU if you are only now conducting those negotiations with the UK Government.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I shall resist, just this once, the Brexit issues in order to focus on the really important issue of skills in the Northern Ireland economy. I have been proactively engaging with my counterparts in London on the issue of the European social fund and its replacement, the shared prosperity fund. I will further support the Finance Minister as he seeks a full replacement of those funds for Northern Ireland. It is absolutely important that we are able to progress these issues for the people of Northern Ireland, for the young people of Northern Ireland and particularly for the economy of the future of Northern Ireland.