Energy & Utility Skills is to join with sector employers to develop new sector apprenticeship frameworks in Northern Ireland. Beginning this month, the process will conclude in March 2019 and will give Northern Ireland employers in the gas, water and power industries the opportunity to contribute in order to better ensure the frameworks adequately reflect their needs.
The commission follows the Department for the Economy’s Apprenticeship Strategy in Northern Ireland, which Energy & Utility Skills, and a wide range of employers, contributed to.
Ronnie Moore, Client Manager at Energy & Utility Skills, said: “Once potential talent has been identified, another factor remains – the content apprentices should be trained on.
“Whilst that should be relatively simple – as responsibility for skills is devolved – the whole UK apprenticeship landscape has been complicated by the introduction of ‘Trailblazer’ apprenticeships in England and the moving away from the National Occupational Standards (NOS), which used to apply across the whole of the UK and provide consistency. The devolved administrations remain committed to retaining NOS as a fundamental pillar for specifying, developing and measuring workplace competence.”
Mr. Moore, a former training and development manager at Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) with over 40 years’ experience in the power industry, added: “As NOS remains at the heart of most training programmes, including apprenticeships, the issue is that multi-national companies operating across borders are likely to have to manage increasingly different apprenticeship programmes as well as wider workforce training specifications and requirements.
“NOS is judged by employers to be critical to ensuring they have the skills they need in their business to be competent. Northern Ireland wanted to retain the NOS and now there’s an unhelpful divide. The nations are not working together to ensure the UK and each of the four nations has a sustainable and resilient workforce. We are helping to create those conversations and need parity across the board.”
This recognition of apprenticeships as a vital supply line to address the skills gaps and shortages across the gas, power, water and waste management industries is consistent with the calls made by leading sector employers in the Workforce Renewal & Skills Strategy – a coherent strategic plan for the entire sector that the National Infrastructure Delivery Plan for Skills did not include.
The Skills Strategy predicts there will be a shortage of 221,000 workers by 2027 across the sector, which accounts for 56% of the National Infrastructure Pipeline and underpins the UK economy. It also highlights a lack of suitably skilled labour, as shown in the prevalence of sector vacancies that are proving hard-to-fill by employers. Within the sector, 36% of all vacancies were down to skills shortages – the highest proportion of any sector. The national average is 23%.
Recent data published by the Office for National Statistics indicates that the UK’s labour market is arguably tighter than at any point since records began, with record high employment. The labour situation in Ireland is compounded by rising skills shortages.
Last March, the employment rate, or proportion of employed people aged 16 to 64, reached its highest level since comparable records began in 1971 – 74.8%. At the same time, the unemployment rate has fallen to its lowest level since July 1975 – 4.6%.
In April 2017, less than one per cent (3,000) of the 514,000 Jobseekers’ Allowance claimants were seeking employment in relevant occupations, which include the 13 job titles on the UK’s Shortage Occupation List.
Between May and July 2017, the Labour Force Survey recorded a fall in its unemployment rate to 5.3% of the working population. Also, the numbers claiming unemployment-related benefits fell for the 18th consecutive month in August 2017, to 29,800.
Raymond McMenemy is the Technical Training Manager at NIE Networks, which owns and maintains Northern Ireland’s power networks, and serves over 860,000 customers. He added: “NIE Networks is delighted to support this review of frameworks within the utility sector in Northern Ireland. This is a fantastic opportunity to review the skills and knowledge required by our future apprentice intakes, ensuring they meet our business needs. It is also an opportunity to share best practice within the wider utility sector.”
“As a growing company with a developing network, we rely upon our apprenticeship scheme to deliver staff with the necessary skills for the future,” added Paul McKee, General Manager at Phoenix Energy Services, provider of gas repairs and emergency response services. “With our involvement in the development process we hope to ensure that the gas frameworks meet the required criteria in full.”