It’s Manufacturing Month in Northern Ireland this month. Led by the campaigning organisation Manufacturing NI, there’s a programme of events highlighting the successes and challenges facing the sector currently. To mark the initiative, The Open University (OU) Northern Ireland produced a podcast, discussing the future of skills and learning in Northern Ireland’s manufacturing sector.

Laurence Knell, Associate Lecturer at the OU’s Business School, hosted the podcast. He was joined by Stephen Kelly, Chief Executive at Manufacturing NI, John D’Arcy, Director at the OU, Ireland, and Lisa Nappin, Head of Business Development – Enterprise at the OU.

The podcast began with the panel discussing the current skill situation in NI. Stephen talked about the fact that there is not just a shortage of skills, but also a shortage of labour. Prior to Brexit, manufacturers were importing a significant proportion of their labour and skills, but that has become a lot more difficult since Brexit. This reduction in available talent has forced employers to become more proactive about retaining talent and building up skills from within. “Labour market problems have driven a really strong focus on skills,” said Stephen.

There’s a strong focus on developing people and on productivity. They (employers) are determined to ensure that people remain in the business so they’re looking at the needs and demands of those individuals, and they’re looking at ways to improve their skills and improve their contribution to the business.

Stephen Kelly
Chief Executive, Manufacturing NI

Stephen said the OU has had and continues to have a very important role to play here, working with businesses and with individuals to understand skills needs and to answer those skills needs.

Something else that has emerged strongly recently is the need for enhanced management and leadership skills, across all levels of business. Stephen says there has been so much change and innovation that people and organisations need to think differently about work. And they need to get to grips with digital transformation and ensure technical skills are up to date.

Every year, the OU produces its Business Barometer report, a deep dive into the skills landscape across the UK. In the podcast, Lisa Nappin pulled out some of the key statistics from the 2021 Business Barometer report, published in partnership with the Institute of Directors. This Year’s Business Barometer report will be published in June 2022.

  • 64% of organisations surveyed in Northern Ireland are finding it more difficult to recruit new hires
  • just under a quarter (24%) think that finding staff with the right skills set will be their single biggest challenge the next five years
  • 52% of organisations in the manufacturing and automotive sector currently have skills shortages

“The key message from employers was that the skills shortage is a long term problem,” said Lisa. “Some employers still see recruitment as an answer to the skills gaps but many are seeing the benefits of a long term strategy to develop talent and unlock potential from within through training.”

When conducting the Business Barometer research, the OU asked employers in the manufacturing and automotive sectors what their skills barriers were. Some of the results make for interesting reading:

  • 85% reported a shortage of specific skills in the candidate pool
  • 28% of talented candidates coming through are demanding higher salaries, making it difficult for small to medium size enterprises that might not be able to increase pay levels
  • 43% of employers have introduced training to boost employee skills in order to meet organisational needs
  • 60% of employers agree that work-based learning will be vital to their organisation’s future
  • 57% of organisations agree that skills shortages have significantly affected their ability to grow

John D’Arcy said the OU has been working with several institutions, universities and colleges in NI the past few years to tackle the skills crisis on a partnership basis through the promotion of lifelong learning. Employers and employees can also take advantage of the wide variety of courses offered by the OU – from post grad courses to smaller courses on OpenLearn, the OU’s free learning platform. “As a university we’ve been very proactive the last couple of years developing shorter courses, like microcredentials,” said John. “They are really tailored to help individuals and businesses learn new skills, whether it’s technological stuff like cyber security, or leadership and management, in small bite-sized chunks.”

These course are accredited and learners can keep topping up their skills and qualifications. John said management and leadership courses have been particularly popular during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the closing few minutes of the podcast, Lisa talked about the OU’s ability to help organisations with their skills development and strategy and to reach out to a more diverse talent pool.

We would encourage organisations in the sector to look at different programmes, different learning models and providers, to widen the scope of what they can offer. Use learning as a benefit in your organisation to retain and grow your own talent, close the skills gaps and create a sustainable future.

How can we help?