Skills in the workforce: an all-island challenge

Posted on July 31, 2018

Tom Healy, Director NERI
Tom Healy, Director NERI

The newsworthy captures the daily headlines – Brexit, world events and tensions, local news, human stories and the state of Northern Ireland’s governance at this time. What is, perhaps, less newsworthy are those deep seated and long-term shifts that occur. One such shift is in the ever-changing ‘human capital’ of a society – those skills, capacities and knowledge that enable workers and enterprises to produce and to sell as well as to buy and to develop.

The state of skills in Northern Ireland was the subject of an earlier blog that I wrote in May 2014 [We have a problem on low skills and we need to talk about it]. The data on which my comments were based was the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) undertaken across OECD countries in 2012 as well as in Northern Ireland for which a special report was released in 2013 [The International Survey of Adult Skills 2012: Adult literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills in Northern Ireland A report prepared by NFER for the Department for Employment and Learning].

The PIAAC 2012 data are still the latest available on international comparisons of literacy, numeracy and problem-solving.  The chart, below, provides a focus on numeracy skill levels for 25-34 year olds – an important indicator or proxy of likely skill levels as younger age-cohorts replace older cohorts over time.

As stated in my blog, in 2014, ‘It is useful to view the question of skills – especially in a workplace context – along with the question of earnings, training and productivity. The bulk of workforce works in small and medium-sized enterprises – mostly domestically owned - in both jurisdictions. On any measure of productivity it is clear that many of these enterprises show relatively low productivity compared to the higher-technological multi-national sector (although productivity is likely to be exaggerated in the latter case by profit-booking and price-transferring practices).’

There is an all-island challenge to develop skills; to re-skill and to prepare especially as enterprises and workers face into the uncertainty of Brexit.

Some analysts have noted a growing polarisation in the labour market as clerical and administrative occupations lose employment share to lower-skill and higher-skill occupations. This hollowing out of the middle of the workforce is driven, in part, by technology and has huge implications for particular sectors and groups in the workforce.  One way to respond to these changes is to retrain and refocus groups at risk in order to equip workers to work with new technologies in newly emerging sectors. A combination of ‘soft’ social skills and adaptation to new technologies would provide a partial solution. An example of this might include development of skills in relation to care of the elderly where care staff who visit people in their own homes could avail of new technology to identify health needs or emergencies.  Service sector jobs will require, increasingly, greater use of new technology as well as strong inter-personal skills where distance from the centre where services are provided.


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