Conference, it is a great honour to address you as Minister for Employment and Learning
Alliance has been entrusted with a major economic and social department at a time that may seem one of major challenge but is in fact one of great opportunity.
Economic transformation and social justice must be priorities for this society, and they certainly are forAlliance.
Economic change is clearly linked to shared future.
Economic development will help us to build a shared society. But we must also be conscious that continued divisions are themselves an impediment to economic progress.
Like many other countries and regions, Northern Ireland has been going through difficult economic time. But the recent cyclical problems come on top of much more deep rooted structural problems in this society.
We have been held back by decades of violence and division, and as a result have not had the same opportunities to restructure as other modern economies.
There are clear challenges to rebalance our economy, to grow our private sector, and to address the wasted resource that comes from economic inactivity.
But let’s be clear many of the foundations for a successful economy already exist inNorthern Ireland.
Most notably, our people and their skills are our greatest asset.
Since becoming Minister I have united my Department around a single and overarching mission related to investing in people, skills and jobs.
And I am committed to upskilling across a broad front.
This includes higher education; further education; working with employers; training in the workplace and in the community; and helping the employability skills of those who are unemployed.
We are now operating in an increasingly competitive global context.
Indeed, the recent economic recession has witnessed a significant acceleration of the rebalancing of the global economy towards Asia and emerging economies elsewhere. TheUnited Statesis itself recovering. In Europe, the challenge remains particularly acute.
This means that inNorthern Irelandwe have to get things right. We have to work harder and smarter. We have to match supply with demand, and to drive out skill shortages or skill mismatches. We need to stay ahead of the curve.
Before discussing the specific actions that I have already taken since becoming Minister and in particular my future plans, I want to address to some broader issues relating to the economy.
Alliance’s vision of a shared society must be underpinned by a prosperous and dynamic economy. We want to see a much stronger emphasis on knowledge-based activities, and a much stronger export focus. We also see great potential in both the green economy and within the tourism and hospitality sector.
I once again restate this party’s support for a lower rate of corporation tax. This would create the potential for a step-change in our economic fortunes. It changes the focus from subsidising costs to incentivising profits.
However, Corporation Tax will not be effective in a vacuum. It can only work as part of a balanced approach.
It is for this reason that I have commissioned detailed research in the future skill needs of our economy arising from a lower rate of Corporation Tax. This is due to be published within the next few weeks.
I firmly believe that a reduction in corporation tax itself will not ensure the success ad step change in the economy that we desire. The skills of the population are crucial both in achieving this economic success and ensuring that no one is left behind. I am commitment to ensuring that my Department is ready and able to meet this challenge.
And there is already much that that we are doing to assist investors.
In conjunction with Invest NI, I am running the Assured Skills programme. This is about helping to secure investors that the necessary skilled employees are available in Northern Ireland, and creating and running the dedicated training courses to provide the specific skills that companies require.
I also welcome the suggestions regarding Enterprise Zones. But rather than picking small areas, all ofNorthern Irelandshould be considered as an enterprise zone.
We need to encourage investment, not seek to micro-manage it. We need to address the barriers that exist to full labour mobility, including building a shared future.
I take my responsibilities towards a shared society very seriously. It is for that reason that I put such considerations at the centre of my work as Minister for Employment and Learning.
Conference, I am pleased to announce that I am introducing shared future proofing into all of the major policy decisions that are taken within my Department.
This proofing is much broader than the equality duty and even the good relations responsibility, and asks searching questions regarding whether new policies will assist sharing or further entrench division. This is unique and groundbreaking.
I am also pleased that the Justice Minister is joining me in this regard – two Alliance Ministers standing up and being counted for a shared future.
I have also conducted a full review of the expenditure of my Department to assess where distortions arise due to the costs of a divided society. This fulfils a clear manifesto commitment fromAlliance. As you will hear shortly, I am following through on the results of this review.
As Minister I have responsibility for major aspects of both economic and social policy.
Last year, I launched the Skills Strategy forNorthern Ireland. This set out the needs the skills needs of our economy over the next decade, including a greater number of higher level skills in general, and in particular a greater emphasis on STEM subjects, and on management and leadership.
We need to maximise the number of people accessing higher education.
One of the first issues I faced when I assumed office last year was the decision around future of the tuition fees
I was pleased to achieve agreement at the Executive to freeze the level of tuition fees for local students at local institutions and also a funding package to protect the level of funding for the local universities.
There would have little point in achieving cheaper higher education inNorthern Irelandif that provision was going to be of an inferior quality.
So for me, the issue of tuition fees and the level of funding for our universities are the two sides of the same coin.
Students can attend local universities based upon their ability to learn, not their ability to pay.
We want more people to study inNorthern Irelandand to build their careers here. I have secured the funds for an additional 700 university places here through to 2015.
This is the biggest increase in the size of the university sector in over a decade, and all of these places will be in STEM subjects.
But it is not just about undergraduate places. We also need to grow our local research and development capacity, and I intend to shortly commit to expand postgraduate provision.
With the first steps now set to be taken, I want to set the objective of doubling our number of PhD places by the end of the decade.
Next week, I am launching theNorthern Ireland’s first Higher Education Strategy. This will set out the detailed direction of policy here through to 2020.
My vision for higher education is one of a sector which is vibrant and of international calibre; which pursues excellence in teaching and research; which plays a pivotal role in the development of a modern, sustainable knowledge-based economy; which supports a confident, shared society; and which recognises and values diversity.
Some of the key themes will be international linkages, more part-time and modular learning, greater opportunities for work placements to develop employability skills, and stronger support for research and development.
A sister Widening Participation strategy will also be finalised shortly. We do already have some good results on participation in higher education, but we cannot afford to be complacent, particularly in a difficult financial and economic situation. Furthermore, we have some persistent pockets of under-representation which must be tackled.
One area where do clearly need to make some changes is in the field of teacher training. It is clear that a multitude of providers in a declining market is not sustainable. We appear to have a system that is driven by the interests of institutions rather than the needs for future teachers.
It is for this reason that I have launched a two-stage review of the teacher training landscape. The first stage will look at the funding model of the teacher training colleges. The second stage will explore various models of sharing, including a fully integrated system.
We can be very proud of our Further Education Sector has to offer. It covers a wide range of activities from Foundation Degrees to Essential Skills training. I am making it very clear that it is on the front line in engaging with business and addressing the needs of employers. I was pleased to confirm a £7m Employer Support Programme earlier this year.
The FE Sector is a key partner in the delivery of apprenticeships. I am committed to apprenticeships across the age spectrum. They are an invaluable and worthy alternative means of training. Later this year, I intend to launch Level 4 Apprenticeships in Engineering and ICT.
Early in my term of office, I restored funding to Adult Apprenticeships. On the back of that I will shortly be concluding a Review of Adult Training that should see resources better concentrated around priority skills.
It is also important that we seek to assist specific sectors.
I am acutely aware of the potential for the growth of the ICT sector. Many more jobs, indeed highly paid jobs, can be created by both indigenous and overseas companies alike. It is important that we are able to build on the already strong foundation that we have in this area. And it is for this reason that I have established and lead an ICT Working Group compromising government departments, the universities and colleges and business leaders. An Action Plan should be agreed for June.
Tourism is very much in our minds this year. Northern Ireland has a wonderful opportunity to develop its market in particular given the events over the coming two years. But we also want to achieve a real legacy, and that involves investing in our people and customer care. It is for this reason that I have designated tourism and hospitality a priority skill area, and am investing in bespoke training for this sector.
Good careers advice is the foundation stone of a skilled workforce and providing for the job market of tomorrow. I am determined to ensure the better use of Labour Market Information in careers advice.
But I am also clear that good careers advice is something for everyone. Fewer and fewer people will spend all of their working lives with just one employer. It is for this reason that I am piloting the opening of our careers advice centres on Saturday mornings, starting in Belfast, to better engage with this adult market.
Of course, we still have too many people in our society who are either unemployed or outside of the labour market entirely. This is a huge wasted resource for our society. Everyone deserves the opportunity to realise their full potential.
Unemployment figures in Northern Ireland are lower than in many other regions and countries, and I am proud of the efforts that my staff are making in this regard through our employment programmes.
Youth unemployment is however a particularly challenging area. Many young people are skilled and trained, but are caught in this trap that they can’t get a job without experience and can’t get experience without a job. I am pleased that we have achieved the support of the Executive for a new youth unemployment programme for Northern Ireland that will be based around work experience and employability skills. Once resourcing is agreed with the Finance Minister and the Executive, this programme will roll out across Northern Ireland.
There is a real hunger amongst young people for new opportunities, and I am pleased that the business community is so willing to engage. I have worked to ensure this and will continue to do so.
But there are also many young people that face much wider structural barriers to participating in the labour market. They are often referred to as NEETs.
I am currently leading on the creation of a joined-up government strategy for giving opportunities to those in this situation. I am fully committed and determined that as our economy grows and prospered everyone will have the opportunity to benefit.
I believe that every Minister should be flexible and responsive to the needs of the economy and society.
It is a unique advantage presented by the size of our administration and population and if utilised can give us a competitive advantage over other countries and regions throughout the world.
This is something that I have been committed to since taking up post – and given the strategic importance of the Department of Employment and Learning to the wider economy is crucial. The ability of DEL to act quickly and flexibly during the economic downturn, to anticipate the needs of employers, inward investors and individuals is paramount to growing both a strong economy and society.
I remain committed to this going forward, this is Alliance in Government. Working hard, respecting others. Delivering for students; Delivering for workers; Delivering for Business, Delivering for Everyone.