Published: 4th May 2016

adrian-nolan-web-236x300Localised and joined-up skills strategies are vital if Belfast is to address its employability gap, says Adrian Nolan

The Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) has engaged with Belfast Council and partners on a range of projects in recent years. One of these was based around research to inform the city’s employability and skills strategy.

The central purpose was to help shape something that is both ambitious and transformative. The research aimed to provide a foundation to change the way things are done in the city in relation to this agenda, and create a highly effective system of delivery that will help residents right across Belfast in maximising potential and changing lives.

Progressive skills strategies are essential for building strong places

Too many places within the UK are characterised by persistent pockets of skills deficiency. This has severe implications for productivity within the economy. The issues around supply and demand are longstanding, and this is no different for Belfast. Localised skills strategies are crucial for places to determine how provision and strategic planning will address challenges and maximise opportunities. Nationally, strategy has been piecemeal and fragmented and this is reflected in the confused provision landscape in many places across the UK. More than ever, it is critical for places to fully understand their local circumstances, and develop a plan of delivery that directly supports people and businesses. This was our context for the research in Belfast.

Skills mismatch

Belfast is a rapidly growing international centre and, until the economic downturn, was one of fastest growing regional economies in the UK. Growth is being driven by sectors such as ICT; professional, scientific and technical activities; administrative and support services; and health.

However, despite the relatively strong growth of the city economy, there remains a very marked polarisation between those who are well qualified and those who have no qualifications or who are low skilled. In particular there is a significant over supply of lower skilled residents in Belfast (linked also to high levels of economic inactivity), with more demand in the future being for higher skilled labour across many sectors.

In addition to this, skills and employability issues are a continuing concern for Belfast employers. In 2013 a third of employers had difficulty recruiting, half of those due to lack of skills. Employability skills such as team working, planning/organisation, problem solving, and communication are a particular gap, while work experience and attitude are a much more frequent obstacle for young job seekers (and would-be employers) than qualifications.

In summary what we can observe here are some opportunities and key skills challenges, but this is not unique to Belfast – indeed it could be held up as a mirror image of several cities across the UK

Six key challenges to address in Belfast

As part of this work, CLES undertook a baseline study and consultation with key individuals from the public, private and social sectors. This allowed us to understand in more clarity, six core challenges related to skills and employability:

  • Lack of employability skills across all sections of the working age population: These combine basic attitudes and abilities that are essential to work, as well as crucial generic skills that contribute to productivity and success from basic to high level roles.
  • Family cultures around schooling, education and the world of work are also affecting employability: In particular this has knock-on effects for the ability to tackle the cycle of decline in some neighbourhoods, and for people to move into even the lowest levels of employment opportunity.
  • The over 25s lack general technical skills: A significant proportion of the working age population (aged over 25) have left school with no formal qualifications and have subsequently found it very difficult to move into employment.
  • Low levels of entrepreneurship: a constrained entrepreneurial culture means that people are reliant on employment as a route into work.
  • Careers advice and access to work experience opportunities needs to improve (as in so many other places across the UK).
  • Complexity and duplication in relation to provision around employability and skills.

A change in approach

In response to the findings of the research, CLES developed four broad areas for suggested change, each supported by a suite of objectives in a more detailed action plan.

  • To develop a coherent and city wide employability and skills partnership: a means of joining together activity and providing a strategic, coherent and city wide approach to employability and skills.
  • To provide a rounded and whole-life package of entry and lower level skills development and provision: a significant proportion of the Belfast resident population lack the very basic skills required to move into, and sustain employment. Starting at year zero in a person’s life, and providing a rounded and whole-life package of entry and lower level skills development and provision.
  • To generate higher level skills which meet the demands of employers and investors: the imbalance in the supply and demand of high level skills requires action and is the focus of this element was to develop more highly skilled Belfast residents.
  • To enable progression routes and employability skills for all: ensuring that there are clear and accessible progression routes between entry/lower level skills and higher level skills, so that individuals can make the most of their potential through upskilling.

More broadly for CLES, wider employability matters just as much as skills. This is a key challenge within the current skills system. Too great a focus on outputs as opposed to outcomes, combined with an education system predominately about exam results, is a longstanding issue. This means that people tend not to have strong employability skills that are essential for work, as well as crucial generic skills that contribute to productivity and success from basic to high level roles – for example, interpersonal skills and creativity. Just because it cannot easily be measured, does not mean it is not central to future prosperity. Government needs to listen to employers who frequently value these skills as much as, if not more than, qualifications.

It also means appreciating that a whole range of factors affect an individual’s ability to engage with skills development and employment opportunities. These could include educational attainment, lack of employability skills, health issues, a lack of engagement with employers, providers and services, and an overall poor life trajectory. This means linking employability and skills more strongly to other policy areas such health and family support, and in particular creating a cultural shift through engaging with families with complex needs.