In these difficult times it is vital that we do everything we can to help our economy out of recession. One important part of this is to invest in improving the skills of our young people. This is an issue that my Committee has been pursuing through a number of strategies, namely, encouraging greater links between colleges and businesses and through our Inquiry into those not in education, employment or training, the so-called NEETs.
In the current climate, and the probable cuts to the Executive budget, we need to be much more focused on making the most of public investment. We cannot afford to have a workforce that is not highly skilled, highly motivated and highly employable, with well developed transferable skills.
I believe that our colleges have a key role to play. Not only are they instrumental in providing targeted training, they are working to equip our young people with skills needed to succeed in new sectors, such as renewable energy.
It is estimated the some 80% of the current workforce will still be in employment in 2020. Yet, many of these workers lack even basic skills in numeracy, literacy and ICT. Given that too many of our young people are also leaving school without these essential skills and without some basic job skills it is also vital that we continue to focus on these areas.
Indeed, the issue of NEETs is one that my Committee has pursued through an Inquiry, working closely with stakeholders and the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL). We expect that recommendations from our forthcoming Report will be implemented by DEL, ensuring that this group of young people is not condemned to a life at the margins of society.
But we cannot hope to make sustainable progress in this area unless we grow the number of jobs that are available. We need to look seriously at the way we support the economy and provide tailored support for our local companies and those who might invest here in the future.
And it is here, supporting companies, that our six regional colleges are playing a vital role. Colleges already offer a wide range of professional, vocational, technical courses including Apprenticeships, HNDs/HNCs, Essential Skills (literacy, Numeracy, ICT), Leadership and Management and Foundation Degrees. They already provide a flexible learning environment.
Importantly, the colleges are increasing and innovating in the range of services they provide. They now offer opportunities for companies to participate in short-term partnership programmes, with students offered specific projects to work on. They are participating in knowledge transfer partnerships, facilitating the transfer of knowledge and technology from the further education sector to businesses and providing tailored consultancy services, particularly in the IT and manufacturing sectors. And they are developing projects in emerging areas such as the Carbon Zero NI initiative. Carbon Zero NI is particularly exciting for the colleges which are delivering, with backing from DEL, training for businesses that are developing ‘green’ services, such as solar or wind energy generation.
There is no room for complacency: colleges can and must do more. It requires strategic support from politicians and businesses as well as all those interested in improving our economy and society. As Chair of the Assembly Committee for Employment and Learning I am committed to achieving these goals.
The Employment and Learning Committee is hosting a College/Business Breakfast on October 6 in the Long Gallery, Parliament Buildings, Stormont on 6 October 2010 to hear from companies that are currently working with local colleges, including the Belfast Health Trust, Coca-Cola Hellenic NI, Firstsource, B9 Energy Inc, Ryobi Aluminium Casting and Kelly’s Brothers.