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Where have all the good guys gone?

In homes all across Northern Ireland there are graduation photographs adorning the walls  of the beloved offspring, who after achievement of sufficient grades at school, moved on to University level education here, in the Republic, in GB or further afield.

Rarely would there be an accompanying photo of the siblings who perhaps took a different route, going to technical colleges to learn a trade or straight into employment from school to learn on the job.

Yet, today we are facing a turn of tide across the business community with an incessant demand for low, medium and high skilled employees across many sectors. Businesses now tend to value practical skills above what grade someone achieved in a particular subject. When employers are asked what skills matter to them, it is often things which can’t be taught in a classroom, such as communication, resilience, initiative, which score the highest.

There is much talk about skills and labour shortages, the “brain drain” and the need for an improved higher and lower level apprenticeships strategy – all of which impact SMEs in NI. In the first instance, so much emphasis has been placed on gaining a degree-level education that parents, schools and pupils felt it was the only journey to strive for…leaving many in debt and unsure of their next step with degrees in subjects that no longer held interest.

There is a need to ensure that parents and schools support and promote apprenticeship and academy routes for school leavers, moving away from the “my child is at University” ideals and ambitions. 

One of the local NI councils, Mid-Ulster, has recently produced a Skills Report and Plan for 2018-2021 to address the skills shortage faced by market leaders along the Mid-Ulster Agri-food and Engineering corridor. 

Their reliance in recent years on migrant workers is now threatened with the uncertainty of Brexit and the potential workforce moving elsewhere.

In early October, FSB Northern Ireland joined other business organisations in responding to the Migration Advisory Committee’s (MAC) recommendation that there should be no preferential treatment of workers from the European Economic Area, and calling for future migration policy to continue be responsive to the needs of business. While the MAC proposals are only advisory, it is likely that one of the outcomes of Brexit will be a restriction in access to EU workers.

SMEs should learn from the larger banking, finance and consultancy firms who have in-house “academies” and school leaver schemes that training on the job, while getting paid can increase levels of retention and company loyalty among employees – an investment which pays dividends.

The publicised “brain drain” raises discussion around the inability to keep our highly skilled young people here and to attract global talent to these shores. While we enjoy some of the most successful software, tech and manufacturing companies in the world here, other factors recently documented in the media play their role in making Northern Ireland a less attractive place for the most talented young people.

What makes an International student who has gained a first class education at Ulster University or Queen’s stay to work for one of our home-grown companies? What makes the student from Ballymena who went to Oxford University return here to work and put down their roots? We must consider that current political instability and uncertainty plays a key role in the attractiveness of Northern Ireland for employees, entrepreneurs and investors. 

Additionally, we must take a look at the offerings of the low, middle and high level apprenticeships on available. Do we know enough about them? Do teachers, parents and careers advisors feel positively about promoting them as an option to students?

These potential pathways must be become more ingrained into the opportunities presented to students at their various school stages and the government departments and providers of apprenticeships must take a more joined up approach to how the apprenticeship journey is portrayed to both student and employer. SMEs must be better supported in undertaking apprentices so that their invaluable time and resources are not compromised without benefit.

Skills and labour shortage is a real threat to the economy and small business in Northern Ireland, proactivity and planning is needed now to ensure that the SME survives the turbulent road ahead. We can have all the good ideas, innovation, products and services possible, but without the faces and bodies to deliver on orders and operations ambitions become redundant. 

On a final note, I also want to mention another very real issue in the operations of all businesses across Northern Ireland – mental health awareness. FSB has launched a UK-wide campaign “It’s Okay to talk about Mental Health” and we know that around 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. I would urge all SMEs in Northern Ireland to examine their mental health & wellbeing policies – Would your employees feel safe to ask for help? Do you have a dedicated staff member experienced in Mental Health First Aid? Small steps can create a happier, healthier workforce and culture within your organisation.

FSB has developed a useful mental health wellbeing guide available for download which provides support and guidance for small businesses in talking about mental health – “it’s okay to talk”. Visit