Policy Forum for Northern Ireland

Since lockdown, we have been organising our full programme of conferences online. We will continue online until further notice, to ensure we play our part in helping our employees and delegates to remain safe during this time. We are pleased that so many key stakeholders, policymakers and other interested parties - both old friends and new delegates - are taking up the opportunity to discuss public policy issues and network at our impartial seminars. New events are coming on to our conference programme all the time. So there are plenty of opportunities for you to join us if you haven’t already, from wherever you are. For booking-related queries, or information on speaking, please email us at info@forumsupport.co.uk or contact us using one of the following numbers: +44 (0)7538736244 / +44 (0)7503591880 / +44 (0)7951044809.
For delegates already booked on, we will send you the online joining instructions (including links, event numbers and passwords) five working days before your conference. If you cannot find these in your inbox please email delegate.relations@forumsupport.co.uk

Next steps for skills and apprenticeships in Northern Ireland

Morning, Thursday, 24th June 2021

***Full-scale policy conference taking place online***

This conference will examine current policy priorities for skills and apprenticeships in Northern Ireland.

The conference is taking place in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the UK’s exit from the EU, which have both had an impact on the labour market in Northern Ireland, and attracting overseas talent to the country.

It also follows recent developments such as the Skills for Life and Work programme, the interim programme forming part of the Department for the Economy’s work towards reformed provision for young people, and the Economic Recovery Action Plan, with its focus on upskilling the workforce and driving research and development, alongside the creation of a flexible skills fund.

We are pleased to be able to include keynote sessions at this conference with Graeme Wilkinson, Director of Skills, Department for the Economy; and Jackie Henry, Chair, Skills Strategy Advisory Group; and Senior Partner, Deloitte Northern Ireland - as well as contributions from the Education and Training Inspectorate; AquaQ Analytics; the College Principals’ Group; FDQ; the Federation of Master Builders; Fleming Agri; KPMG Ireland; Manufacturing NI; Northern Ireland Electricity; Northern Regional College; the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry; PwC; Tech UK; Ulster University; and Workplus.

The agenda will bring out latest thinking on:

  • up-skilling the workforce post-pandemic
  • addressing skills shortages in the digital, creative and construction sectors
  • strengthening the overseas talent pipeline
  • preparing the workforce for the green transition
  • widening access to apprenticeships and supporting lifelong learning

The agenda

  • Key priorities for skills in Northern Ireland in the wake of the pandemic
  • Up-skilling the workforce in the current climate - priorities for businesses and sectors, funding, and the role of City and Growth Deals
  • Priority growth areas for investing in skills and supporting post-pandemic recovery
  • Focus areas for addressing skills shortages in Northern Ireland
    • Keeping up with digital skills and preparing for future needs
    • Boosting skills and innovation for the creative sectors
    • Upskilling the NI workforce for the green transition
    • Key priorities for supporting the construction workforce
  • Next steps for strengthening the overseas talent pipeline in NI
  • Inspecting the delivery of apprenticeships and best practice
  • Next steps for apprenticeships - widening access and supporting lifelong learning, driving up standards, and supporting the workforce

Key areas for discussion:

Skills in the wake of COVID-19:

  • COVID-19 - assessing:
    • the expected impact of the economic disruption caused by the pandemic on immediate priorities for skills in Northern Ireland
    • opportunities for building on what has worked in policy, and support packages introduced during the pandemic
  • impact of Brexit - how will post-Brexit immigration arrangements affect incoming talent, and looking at next steps for mitigating any negative impact
  • funding priorities for key growth areas:
    • directing and ring-fencing funding to key growth areas
    • what action will need to be taken in light of predictions of comparatively lower levels of skills in NI than in other OECD jurisdictions

Priorities for upskilling the workforce post-pandemic:

  • supporting businesses and sectors:
    • ensuring sufficient cross-societal consultation to understand sector needs post-COVID-19
    • what support is needed for the sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, such as healthcare and hospitality
    • assessing the most efficient way of targeting funding for economic recovery
  • City and Growth Deals - looking at:
    • best practice for promoting regional job creation and skills development
    • priorities for achieving benefits from the recent Derry & Strabane City Deal, and spreading the advantages across sectors

Focus areas for addressing skills shortages in NI - looking at key growth areas as well as areas with skills gaps:

  • digital skills:
    • priorities for education - incorporating teaching on digital skills into education, in order to ensure an adequate skills base for working with emerging technologies
    • re-skilling the workforce - securing employment levels, and opportunities for digital re-skilling in light of increased automation
    • AI - the outlook for the proposed new AI centre of excellence for NI
  • creative sectors:
    • funding and support - what is needed for the recovery of key in-person creative professions in the wake of the pandemic
    • COVID-19 - building on lessons learned around creative output in a digital form during lockdowns
    • fostering a collaborative environment - promoting the development of creative clusters and innovative cultures, and encouraging cross-sector knowledge exchange
    • partnerships - including the recent announcement of renewed collaboration between Northern Ireland Screen and the BBC
  • green transition:
    • skills for the future - driving the transition to green energy and living through promoting apprenticeships centred on skills needed for the future, such as sustainable energy and decarbonisation
    • collaborative research practices:
      • improving co-operation and knowledge exchange between research and innovation teams and businesses, including in the energy and education sectors, so as to inform changing priorities in skills development
      • the potential of the Green Innovation Challenge Fund
  • construction:
    • transition from the EU - looking at the impact of changing immigration rules post-Brexit, and assessing the state of play for domestic talent in the sector
    • infrastructure - looking at priorities, and the role of the sector in supporting the infrastructure underpinning the NI economy
    • funding and investment - potential for wider improvements in productivity through targeted investment
    • meeting sector priorities - the extent and makeup of skills needed for meeting these needs, and dovetailing with net-zero aims
  • overseas talent and immigration:
    • Brexit - looking at the experience so far of the impact of Brexit on incoming talent and the experience in individual sectors
    • support for overseas talent - assessing:
      • companies’ capacities to sponsor visas
      • opportunities to improve support for employers and employees
      • the role of international graduates in contributing to skills in NI


  • widening access and increasing uptake:
    • how best to improve awareness and confidence in apprenticeships in light of challenges faced during the pandemic
    • what is needed for increasing uptake
    • priorities for seeking parity of esteem with other qualifications
  • lifelong learning:
    • streamlining access to re-skilling - considering the impact of the recent decision to remove the age cap, as well as further priorities
    • encouraging lifelong learning - looking at cultural considerations, and the role of career guidance and support
  • driving up standards:
    • COVID-19 - lessons learned from apprenticeship provision during the pandemic, and taking forward best practice on delivery
    • preparing for the changing nature of work:
      • improving collaboration between industry and apprenticeship providers to ensure the key skills needed in the workplace are learned
      • making sure skills are transferrable

A scan of relevant developments:

  • the Skills for Life and Work programme:
    • an interim programme announced in January this year as part of the Department for the Economy’s ongoing work towards reformed Entry Level and Level 1 provision for young people
    • the recent procurement process to source providers for the programme
  • the Economic Recovery Action Plan - recently launched by the Economy Minister to drive Northern Ireland’s economic recovery, focussing on:
    • upskilling the workforce
    • driving R&D activities
    • promoting investment
    • including actions such as:
      • developing a Flexible Skills Fund and a Green Innovation Challenge Fund
      • removing the age cap from apprenticeships and widening access
      • creating an AI centre of excellence in NI
      • delivering City and Growth Deals at faster pace
  • Derry-Londonderry & Strabane City Deal - the recently announced £250m City Deal Package to support growth and prosperity in the region
    • including in areas such as healthcare and medical research, AI, regeneration and infrastructure
    • also comprising an Inclusive Future Fund worth £110m, which includes an aim to improve employment pathways and upskilling opportunities
  • recent research on current priorities in supporting skills development in NI:
    • The Northern Ireland College of the Future - recently produced by the UK-wide body, the Independent Commission on the College of the Future arguing that FE colleges are crucial for improving skills and employment prospects, and urging the NI Executive to place FE colleges at the heart of policy driving economic recovery
    • the recent report from the Learning and Work Institute - finding that by 2030, Northern Ireland is likely to have:
      • the fourth highest proportion of people without the equivalent of GCSE-level education
      • the third lowest proportion of highly qualified people than other OECD comparators
    • Building the Future we Need - a recent report from TechUK finding an urgent need for NI to invest in improving its digital skills to drive recovery led by innovation
  • recent support from the UK government for NI businesses and economy:
    • the recent £410m of additional funding for Northern Ireland for supporting jobs and businesses during COVID-19
    • the £400m package supplied by the UK Government to NI following its Transition deal, for supporting NI’s economic growth
  • the earlier OECD Skills Strategy Northern Ireland report - assessing the state of play with skills development in NI, recommending a focus on:
    • encouraging lifelong learning and starting the development of a culture of lifelong learning in early years
    • reducing key skills imbalances through, for example, the provision of effective career guidance
    • transforming workplaces to ensure they make full use of workforce skills, such as through improved leadership and management
    • improving the governance of ensuring sufficient funding for skills policies
  • decentralisation of the BBC - the BBC’s announcement that they are moving key departments, jobs and programmes out of London, including:
    • a renewal of creative partnerships with devolved nations, such as with Northern Ireland Screen
    • doubling the commitment to apprenticeships to reach 1,000 per year across the UK
  • the Learn to Grow Excel Training Academy - recently announced by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry to help businesses meet emerging skills needs
  • the launch of the Assured Skills Academy - which offers pre-employment training in skills in areas such as data analytics, cyber security, welding and financial services
  • Capita and Immersive Labs to deliver online cyber skills platform  - recently announced by the Department for the Economy:
    • the delivery of a new pilot online cyber security development platform will enable individuals to access free online entry training and aptitude testing
    • those who complete the training will gain access to relevant job vacancies and further training pathways

Policy officials attending:

Our forums are known for attracting strong interest from policymakers and stakeholders. Places have been reserved by parliamentary pass-holders from the House of Commons and officials from DAERA; the Department for the Economy; Department of Further and Higher Education (ROI); Department of Public Expenditure & Reform (ROI); Department of Social Protection (ROI); the Department for Education; the DWP; the Education and Training Inspectorate; and the Home Office.

Overall, we expect speakers and attendees to be a senior and informed group including Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and senior officials from the Northern Ireland Executive, and regulatory officials involved in this area of policy, as well as from representatives from private and public sector employers, universities, further education institutions, apprenticeship training suppliers, as well as industry groups, businesses and their advisors, representatives of citizen and interest groups, and academics, together with reporters from the national and specialist media.

This is a full-scale conference taking place online***

  • full, four-hour programme including comfort breaks - you’ll also get a full recording and transcript to refer back to
  • information-rich discussion involving key policymakers and stakeholders
  • conference materials provided in advance, including speaker biographies
  • speakers presenting via webcam, accompanied by slides if they wish, using the Cisco WebEx professional online conference platform (easy for delegates - we’ll provide full details)
  • opportunities for live delegate questions and comments with all speakers
  • a recording of the addresses, all slides cleared by speakers, and further materials, is made available to all delegates afterwards as a permanent record of the proceedings
  • delegates are able to add their own written comments and articles following the conference, to be distributed to all attendees and more widely
  • networking too - there will be opportunities for delegates to e-meet and interact - we’ll tell you how!

Full information and guidance on how to take part will be sent to delegates before the conference

Keynote Speaker

Graeme Wilkinson

Director of Skills, Department for the Economy


Stewart Dickson MLA

Alliance Party Economy Spokesperson and Member, Committee for the Economy

Dr Caoimhe Archibald MLA

Chair, Committee for the Economy


Mary Meehan

Deputy Chief Executive, Manufacturing NI

Jackie Henry

Chair, Skills Strategy Advisory Group; and Senior Partner, Deloitte Northern Ireland

Richard Kirk

CEO and Founder, Workplus

Terry Fennell

Chief Executive, FDQ

Ken Webb

Principal and Chief Executive, South Eastern Regional College; and Chair, NI FE College Principals’ Group

Maggy McCartney

HR and Health & Safety Officer, Fleming Agri

Gavin McGuire

Northern Ireland Director, Federation of Master Builders

Julian David

CEO, Tech UK

Philip McNally

Manager, Corporate Immigration and Employment Law, KPMG Ireland

Gordon Parkes

HR Director, NIE Networks

Ivy McFarlane

Business Development Director, AquaQ Analytics

Lynne Rainey

Forensics Partner, Place & Purpose Leader for Northern Ireland, PwC

Dr Declan Keeney

Director, Ulster Screen Academy, Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Ulster University

John Kennedy

Inspector of Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering, Education and Training Inspectorate

Dr Margaret Duddy

Inspector of Construction and Engineering, Education and Training Inspectorate

Professor Terri Scott

Principal and Chief Executive, Northern Regional College

Senior speaker confirmed from Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry