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Skills Strategy for Northern Ireland: Driving economic growth after Covid through upskilling and reskilling

Improving skills levels is a top priority in Northern Ireland at the moment, with a strong focus on the need for upskilling and reskilling as part of the Covid-19 pandemic recovery plan. The Department for the Economy recently released a consultation called Skills Strategy for Northern Ireland: Skills for a 10x Economy, which will set the strategic skills agenda from now to 2030. It says “Delivering a 10x Economy – an economy that is 10x stronger, 10x more prosperous, 10s more resilient – will require transformation in our skills system.”

That transformation was discussed in a podcast held by The Open University (OU) entitled Talking Skills Strategy Success. Speaking on the podcast were Graeme Wilkinson, Director of Skills at the Department for the Economy, John D’Arcy, Nation Director, The OU in Ireland and Dr Lynsey Quinn, Business Development Lead at the OU in Ireland. The host was Laurie Knell, Associate Lecturer at the Open University Business School and Director at Dublin-based consultancy, Strategic Innovation Partners

The podcast explored skills strategies for government support programmes that will boost upskilling and reskilling in Northern Ireland. In recent years, a lot of research has been conducted into the local skills landscape, including research by the intergovernmental Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The OECD released its skills strategy for Northern Ireland

The research shows that there is a real imbalance of skills in Northern Ireland. In particular, there are a lot of people in the workforce who don’t have any formal qualifications, a situation that Graeme says urgently needs to be addressed. And there is also what he calls the missing middle – a lack of people with technical and professional skills at levels three, four and five. On top of that, Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the labour market and the skills agenda. 

Graeme says all of this is driving the need to invest in upskilling and reskilling. In June 2020, the Department for the Economy announced a £1.7m investment package to deliver online skills interventions for people whose jobs had been impacted by Covid-19. 

We have too many individuals within our workforce with low or no qualifications. We need to put in place the skills and the investment to allow individuals to progress to a higher level of skills, to allow them to get those higher-level jobs.

Graeme Wilkinson, Director of Skills at the Department for the Economy

Graeme would like employers to focus their efforts on boosting the skills of their existing workforce, particularly in relation to management and leadership roles. Developing a new strategy for management and leadership capabilities is one of the main recommendations of the OECD skills strategy report. Demand is also strong for STEM-related roles so there is an urgent need for employers to invest in engineering, software and digital skills. 

According to Graeme, there are three areas that are vital to the skills agenda: addressing the skills and balances/imbalances, developing a culture of lifelong learning and digital learning. “What Covid has taught us is that digital skills are going to become even more important over the course of the next decade,” he says. 

John D’Arcy from the OU agrees that lifelong learning is key, both for employers and for employees. There are so many challenges coming down the pipeline – artificial intelligence and ongoing tech innovation, for example – that employers need to foster a culture of lifelong learning so that they have the right skills to enable them to meet these challenges. 

The lifelong learning piece stands out for me. Companies need to be looking at the skills level of their staff - looking at the lifelong learning needs of the company as well as of individuals.

John D’Arcy, Nation Director, The OU in Ireland

Covid-19 has forced a lot of people to shift their learning online. Twice as many learners accessed the OU’s OpenLearn platform in Northern Ireland in 2020, for example. Microcredentials – 10-12 week courses – have also become very popular. The shift to remote working and learning has made a lot of people realise the potential and power of digital learning. According to Dr Lynsey Quinn, employers and employees in Northern Ireland have really benefited from a partnership approach to skills and learning during the pandemic. 


The Department was very proactive in responding to the needs of our local workforce, including those impacted by Covid, through the Skills Intervention Programme. Through this funding, we were able to offer fully funded places to people whose jobs were impacted by Covid.

Dr Lynsey Quinn, Business Development Lead at the OU in Ireland

The OU and other partners were able to address key priority areas, such as leadership and management, employability and digital skills, to help with the recovery process, with the OU helping around 1,000 people to reskill. And as Graeme Wilkinson said towards the end of the podcast, these collaborations and partnerships are really helping drive the skills agenda going forward. “Organisations like The Open University are absolutely critical to its success. The Open University has a huge amount of experience in terms of delivering online and that has been hugely valuable to us.”

To find out more about the OU in Northern Ireland, visit, on Twitter at @OUBelfast, and on Facebook, Open University NI.

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