INVESTING in skills is going to be one of the most important things we do to support an economic recovery in Northern Ireland.
We know that there were already significant skills gaps before we ever heard of Covid-19. The tech sector – along with other industries – has long had a challenge with not having enough skilled people available to meet the need.
With Covid-19, we have seen digital transformation accelerated, and in many respects, tech skills are even more in demand now than ever before.
We also have the backdrop of climate change and the need to address the challenges it presents. This will require people with skills in areas such as green technologies. (Be in no doubt that climate change is an even bigger challenge than Covid-19 and we absolutely can’t ignore it.)
One of the things we need to do is encourage more of our young people to pursue STEM subjects and then to follow careers in this area. That sounds obvious but I think we are still some way off being where we need to be in that respect.
We need to inspire more young people to see STEM careers as attractive – and this is even more the case when it comes to females. There is an onus here on teachers, parents, political and business leaders, role models and others.
One initiative that I welcome is Maths Week, which takes place this week. It has dozens of online events happening across the island including in Northern Ireland and thousands of young people registered to participate. Teachers, schools, parents and others are involved in supporting it.
Maths plays a crucial part in society. It brings reason to our thoughts. It brings logic to our lives. It is fundamental to how we build our homes, our cities and our infrastructure. It also provides the structure for things like computer games, websites and IT in general.
But in addition to developing the skills of the future, we also need to look at reskilling and upskilling people now. We know that the pandemic will lead to more job losses. We also know that many businesses will have to adapt how they do things.
Reskilling those who are made redundant will help them find new, useful employment that aids the economy. Upskilling existing workforces will help companies become more competitive and innovative.
In this respect I welcome the economy minister’s recent announcement of 3,000 free online training places for people whose employment has been disrupted by the pandemic. Representing an investment of £4.6 million, the courses will have a focus on digital skills and be delivered by the local colleges and universities.
What is clear is that as we recover from the pandemic, we need to work to create a stronger, more resilient, more sustainable economy. Ensuring people have the right skills to enable the economy to develop in the right areas is absolutely key.