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Why NI needs to invest in upskilling

  • By Lynne Rainey

    Over half of Northern Ireland workers would completely retrain if it meant having a future job and a new career, according to a new survey from PwC.

    In a world of automated workplaces, where robots, humans and AI will be competing for work, the fear of redundancy and the hope of new opportunities poses a challenge for employers and educators alike.

    The PwC report, Upskilling Hopes and Fears looks at how people and employers are adjusting to the digital transformation in the workplace and the importance of getting the skills today that will guarantee employment tomorrow.

    This perceived mismatch between the skills people have and those needed for the digital world is now a major global challenge. While technology will likely create as many jobs as it displaces, people need to learn new skills and develop their understanding in order to adapt.

    Without the combined efforts of governments, businesses and NGOs, swathes of people risk being left behind, exacerbating social and economic inequalities. 

    However, while the UK’s track record in education and innovation means we’re phenomenally well placed to step up and take action, competitor nations are realising the opportunities and are catching-up fast.

    With Northern Ireland’s growing digital sector, the good news is that workers are open to engaging and adapting to the opportunities that automation and technology will bring. Nevertheless, this transformation is not without challenges.

    While the economy will benefit from an increasingly skilled and capable workforce, getting there is, in large part, down to the proactive approaches and investment taken by employers.

    It’s encouraging to see that, in Northern Ireland, employers are leading the way when it comes to helping their people to prepare for the digital transformation - 63% of PwC’s survey respondents said that they were already getting opportunities to improve their digital skills, the highest of any UK region.

    One example of investing in upskilling is PwC’s recently-launched Digital Accelerator programme. This comprises over 200 people across the firm and the UK who will help us to become the most digitally-enabled professional services firm, impacting not only on the way we work but also supporting our clients through the challenging times of digital transformation they are also facing.

    But there are also some flashing hazard lights in the survey, warning of problems that could- and should - be avoided. Older workers are at risk of losing out to their younger counterparts - with two-thirds of workers aged 18-34 saying they are being offered upskilling opportunities, compared with under half of 35-54 year olds and it’s even bleaker for people aged 55 and over.

    Little wonder then that younger generations are the most optimistic, with 73% of 18-34 year olds concluding that technology will make their work better, compared to only 47% of ages 55 and over.

    With a rising retirement age, it’s vital that employers ensure equality of opportunity. Older workers bring honed skills and vast experience, so investing and encouraging them to become digital adopters, means they are equipped with the new skills and confidence to make the most of the digital age.

    As more people improve their digital skills, we expect to see a switch from action which is motivated by fear, to one that is inspired by opportunities.

    The onset of a new era in digital advancement, with the likes of 5G in Belfast which will help local businesses to remain competitive and attract investment, will mean much more potential for people here to develop exceptional careers in this sector. Key to our success will be embracing a culture of lifelong learning, and remaining agile to the many and various opportunities presented by the digital world.

    Lynne is a Partner within PwC NI's Forensic Services practice, with specific responsibility for Corporate Intelligence (CI), and works primarily with financial services clients.

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