Posted on Friday 9 December 2016 by Ulster Business

Thumbnail Michael Kane

Imagine a world where small and medium-sized businesses were given the time and space to have their skills needs precisely assessed, defined and met by a range of training providers.

Imagine a skills development system which is completely demand led, where training providers flex to meet the ever-changing needs of businesses, no matter what size.

Imagine what SMEs across Northern Ireland could achieve with that combination of support and how much their success could transform and drive the economy here forward.

It might sound like a pipe dream but has become reality for the 60,000 businesses operating in the Sheffield City Region (SCR), a part of the country which has historically been reliant on heavy industry, has a relatively low skilled working population but has huge ambitions to upskill and grow its economy.

Does that description ring a bell?

You could be forgiven for thinking we were talking about Northern Ireland, a similar sized economy faced with the same challenges.

To understand how we could transform our economy into a highly skilled and finely tuned engine, we first have to visit Sheffield to see how local government there is already well on the way to doing just that.

It starts with the very basic, yet difficult to achieve, aim of raising prosperity by upskilling the current workforce of the SCR, an area made up of nine local authority areas. Accelerated economic growth is then achieved by backfilling these roles with new recruits including Apprentices.

To do that the SCR appointed PwC and we, after some in-depth research and development, have developed the Skills Bank, backed by funding of £17m from the UK government and the European Union.

It pools together the full offering from training providers in the region and beyond to make it substantially easier for companies – particularly SMEs – to access the training they need.

On a practical level the Skills Bank is administered by PwC, either on an online platform, over the phone or in face-to-face business focused conversations, during which the skills needs of each company is assessed and then matched with the provider able to offer the best solution.

From a financial perspective, the training is part funded – up to 80% - by the SCR while the remainder is paid for by the business (the former isn’t paid until the latter has cleared).

The pooling of need also means that small companies who may only want to train a small number of staff members can join together with other firms to effectively fill courses which larger numbers.

The system has transformed the way training provision is developed in the SCR and is dramatically improving the skill level of businesses throughout the region.

In the past government has put the direction of skills development into the hands of the provider rather than the employer.

Now the employers are in the driving seat, able to dictate what type of training they need and armed with more market share.

It has forced providers to flex their offering to meet the demand emanating from the market rather than provide one-size-fits all courses.

It has transformed the skills development of the workforce within the SRC and set the region’s economy on a path of growth unthinkable only a few short years ago.

And it could do the same for Northern Ireland.

The Skills Bank could be the catalyst needed to arm the economy here for the next stage of growth, take advantage of our increased globalisation and put us on a par with other advanced economies around the globe.

Imagine that?



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