Times are tough for everyone, but there may be a glimmer of hope for Northern Ireland businesses if they turn their attention to untapped potential in the workforce according to this year’s Business Barometer report published by The Open University and the British Chambers of Commerce.
The annual report highlights that despite 68% of local organisations facing skills shortages, over a third (36%) of those businesses surveyed don’t have any specific initiatives, skills programmes or workplace adjustments in place for specific talent pools, including underrepresented groups such as people with disabilities, workers over 50, or workers with childcare responsibilities. This highlights a key opportunity for organisations to begin to address their skills gaps by engaging and supporting the needs of groups that traditionally may have been overlooked in the labour market.
The need to develop a clear pipeline of talent internally comes against a backdrop of long-term skills shortages driven by a range of factors including retirement, illness, and staff salary expectations. In addition, an increase in digitalisation, automation and the Net Zero imperative are creating demands for new and additional skills in the workplace that are in short supply.
“This report provides further evidence of a structural skills shortage in Northern Ireland,” said John D’Arcy, Director of The Open University in Ireland. “We recently hosted a roundtable event with Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce where leaders from business and industry discussed how the mismatch between the skills of the workforce and the demands of the labour market is hindering economic growth and development.
“The roundtable highlighted the strong need for short bite-sized learning, a flexible and accessible approach to upskilling, which can help bridge the gap and equip workers with the skills they need to succeed in a changing workplace.
Explaining the crucial role The Open University (OU) plays here John adds: “The OU has vast experience working with organisations in a collaborative manner to address the longstanding skills shortage challenge. We build long-term relationships with partners, based on a deep understanding of their business objectives and the flexible way that we deliver our courses, utilising the latest online technology, means our learning can fit around business priorities and personal responsibilities.”
The skills gap is reflected in the recruitment process with 24% of organisations saying they have been prevented from filling roles due to lack of applicants.
Exactly what skills are in short supply varies across organisation size and sector, but in Northern Ireland, where there was a higher proportion of larger organisations surveyed, the number one skill shortage was Accountants (including trainee-chartered accountants). Medical (inc. pharmacists, nurses, doctors, optometrists, optical and ear professionals) came second and Skilled (inc. technicians, skilled labourers, joinery, builder, panel fitters, electricians, welders and fitters) came in at number three.
The main impacts of recruitment difficulties and skills shortages were felt by existing staff. 70% of organisations in Northern Ireland say skills shortages have increased the workload on existing staff, with reduced activity or output and decreased staff morale and well-being also being reported.
While employers need to invest more in workplace training and development, and in creating more accessible and flexible workspaces, there is also a need for Government to do more.
“An accessible and flexible approach to lifelong learning is essential for addressing skills, gaps, economic productivity, regional imbalances and social inclusion,” said Megan Fearon, Senior Policy Manager for The Open University in Ireland. “While initiatives such as the Skill Up scheme from the Department for the Economy (DfE) that provided funding for short-courses are to be welcomed, ensuring education is truly accessible for all in the long term is critical.
“We need to see skills investment prioritised through a ring-fenced skills fund that transcends annual budgets, alongside an action plan focusing on inclusion and opportunity. This is required to build a modern, prosperous, and sustainable economy. There is an opportunity to deliver this with the DfEs "Skills for a 10X Economy".
Once again, the Business Barometer report has shown why it is critical for business, government and the skills sector to work together to resolve skills shortages.
Commenting on the report’s findings, Stuart Anderson, Head of Public Affairs at Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NI Chamber) said,
“It is clear from this year’s Business Barometer report that the skills shortage has not improved, despite existing efforts from businesses. “And while the report highlights the struggles organisations are facing, it also identifies potential solutions for employers. In the context of a challenging fiscal environment, NI Chamber is actively encouraging members to consider employer-led solutions to the skills deficit.
“There are big opportunities for organisations who support their hidden talent. Investing in employees and empowering them on long-term career paths is a win-win for all.”