The local economy has clearly been hit hard by Covid-19. My Department responded quickly, getting hundreds of millions of pounds out to businesses to keep them afloat. We have now published our economic recovery plan and have our efforts firmly on recovery and regrowth.
Upon taking office I had set myself a number of goals, and had set out for my officials the areas that I wanted to concentrate on during this short mandate. Whilst Covid-19 has been a massive disruption, I am determined to ensure that I do what I can to firstly recover the economy, but also to lay the foundations for the economy in the decades to come.
Enhancing the skills of local people will be key as we start that work. Even before the pandemic, developing a highly effective skills pipeline was a key priority for me. Without access to skilled and talented individuals, we cannot deliver the recovery we all aspire to.
That is why I am bringing forward a holistic skills strategy for the next decade. In doing so I want to foster constructive dialogue between government, business and stakeholders to develop a shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities, as well as the actions required to deliver an agile and resilient workforce for Northern Ireland.
Recent research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to assess the key skills issues impacting the local economy has identified a range of important recommendations for the Executive to consider.
As the OECD highlighted, critical to establishing a world class skills system here is a sustainable and long term investment package. As Minister for the Economy I want to ensure that this investment can be secured and I will work with my Executive colleagues towards this aim.
Since taking office in January, and particularly since the onset of the pandemic, I have approved a number of skills-based initiatives that seek to boost opportunities for people and employers.
I recently allocated an extra £13.6million to enhance skills and vocational education provision. Of this, £1.7million will create 2,000 online training places, to be delivered by further education colleges and universities, for people who have been furloughed or made redundant.
Other areas to benefit included apprentices, training programmes, further and higher education institutions, and support for some of the most vulnerable learners with additional IT resources.
I have also enhanced the Skills Focus programme, removing the employer contribution element, making it free for businesses to upskill staff who are furloughed in readiness for their return to work.
Assured Skills Academies, delivered by further education colleges and universities, continue to offer high quality pre-employment training places to help participants break into areas such as financial services and IT.
My Department, in collaboration with Queen’s University Belfast, also recently opened a free part-time postgraduate certificate in software development offering 150 places to those whose career was impacted by Covid-19.
I am pleased that we have been able to continue offering Assured Skills Academies during this difficult period, and my officials are working hard to bring forward even more Academies.
Vocational education has a critical role in addressing the skills needs of the local economy and supporting learners’ progress up the skills ladder. That is why I introduced special arrangements for the award of vocational qualifications this summer.
I also moved to partially re-open further education colleges and other training providers to support the completion of adaptive assessments, and set up an Advisory and Oversight group to further progress the safe resumption to onsite delivery for FE colleges and training providers.
Northern Ireland stands at a critical moment, with significant economic threats and challenges in the foreground. I am determined to ensure that we seize the opportunities that exist and equip our people with the skills they need to prosper in a rapidly changing world.
Photo caption: Diane Dodds visits Southern Regional College to view the partial re-opening of the campus to support completion of adaptive assessment. Also pictured is Brian Doran, CEO and principal of Southern Regional College, and chair of the FE colleges principals group.
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