Brain drain statistics provide long overdue wake up call for Northern Ireland

By Kirsty McManus, National Director, Institute of Directors (IoD) Northern Ireland

Recently published statistics showed that only a third of Northern Ireland graduates who studied in England, Scotland or Wales returned home to work last year.

It means that more than 3,000 remained in Britain and will likely settle there for the foreseeable future and beyond.

The figures, although stark, are nothing new and as such, should act as a now long overdue wake up call for those in positions of power to influence the situation.

Effectively, some of our most talented young people are also one of our greatest exports and until that process is reversed, efforts to boost the economic performance of Northern Ireland will be seriously undermined.

It is contributing to a major skills gap across the region and our members in the technology, manufacturing, hospitality sectors and others regularly tell us they are struggling to fill vacancies at all levels of their organisations.

This clearly hampers the growth plans of some of our most ambitious companies and while encouraging more university graduates to return to Northern Ireland plays a major part in addressing the issue, the focus should not simply be on third level education.

It’s about making sure our young people are equipped with the right information, at the right time, so they can make intelligent choices about their future career.

That means looking again at careers provisions in schools, in collaboration between education authorities, relevant government bodies and – crucially – industry. There is no point in spending resources setting students onto particular career pathways if these don’t tally with the needs of the economy.

Similarly, the notion of what is deemed success for young people must also be addressed. Certainly, being educated to a degree standard is a clear measure of success but a prosperous economy provides a mix of gateways into the workplace, including alternative further education and apprenticeships.

Only by addressing these matters, can we expect to realise the ambitions outlined in the most recent Northern Ireland Skills Barometer published by the Department of the Economy which suggested 87,000 new jobs would be created by 2026.

Of those positions, around a third are expected to be filled by students and migrant workers so, not only do we need to retain local talent, but we must also attract skills from outside.

Statistical evidence would suggest that the Brexit debate has made this job more difficult with the number of European Union workers employed across Northern Ireland falling by more than a quarter since the EU Referendum.

With admissions for domestic students to Queen’s University and Ulster University capped by the Department for the Economy, they have each also expressed concerns about their ability to attract foreign students following Brexit with around 5 per cent of students currently enrolled here from outside the UK and the Republic

It is clear therefore that progressing the Northern Ireland skills agenda requires a major collaborative approach between education authorities, universities, government and the business community before the brain drain alarm bells becoming deafening.

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