Dolores Kelly MLA is the Chairperson of the Employment and Learning Committee
Northern Ireland’s economy has suffered considerably over recent years from isolation and reliance on public sector spending. Industries which once brought vibrancy to the local economy have long since moved to places where labour costs are much lower. As Chairperson of the NI Assembly Employment and Learning Committee, I am only too aware that the only way for our economy to progress is through the development of high valued-added industries. Those industries require us to increase the numbers of our workers skilled in the STEM subjects. The Committee has been very active in bringing together stakeholder groups from a variety of sectors to get this message across. I believe that our schools, colleges and universities must work closely with business to establish the kinds of skills needed for a modern, dynamic economy that will attract inward investment.
The Committee’s Work
The Committee has hosted a number of events to bring these groups together to promote STEM subjects and to encourage small businesses to work with the various education sectors to create Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, allowing students to bring theoretical knowledge and expertise into the workplace. Northern Ireland’s private sector is dominated by small and micro enterprises and these businesses often have to concentrate on getting the job done and looking for new business; in many cases they do not have time to develop their workers’ skills or their business model. That is something that the Committee can help with. We can provide impetus in government and press for infrastructure that will allow businesses and colleges and universities to get together for mutual benefit and gain.
The Committee has also sought to encourage the government departments here to look beyond their silos and co-operate with each other. We have invested heavily in our Further and Higher Education sectors and now have almost 50% of our young people between the ages of 18 and 21 going into Higher Education and more than 40% of young people going to university here are from socio-economic groups 4 to 7. However, we have a disproportionately higher economically inactive adult population than in Scotland, Wales or England and too many young people leave school with no qualifications. That is our greatest problem, we have a huge gap between our highest and lowest achievers and this gap must be bridged.
The Committee has campaigned hard for better careers advice to encourage more young people into STEM subjects and to make the right choices between entering FE or HE. We have also worked hard to guide the Department for Employment and Learning here to further develop its work on widening participation in HE. The Committee has led the way in bringing groups together to promote the benefits for our economy of joined-up government and sectoral working. I am convinced that we have the talent and will to develop a high-skilled economy. We have much of the infrastructure already in place. What we need now is to join up those things and the Committee, incorporating the 5 main political parties here, has adopted a non-partisan approach to promoting co-operation. Northern Ireland is a region to watch!