Andrew Webb, Chief Economist, Grant Thornton

As the dust settles on exam results, and schools and colleges gear up for a new term, it feels like a good time to reflect on the skills situation in one of our hottest sectors.

It can’t have escaped your notice that over the past number of years, the IT sector in Northern Ireland (NI) has been one of the fastest growing sectors across the whole economy, averaging 3.7% growth per annum between 2012 and 2019. This compares favourably to the economy as a whole, where growth for the same period was 1.7% per annum.

The IT sector currently employs around 25,100 people across NI and about a quarter of these jobs have been added since the last big recession.

This rapid growth, coupled with inward investment successes, and an emerging global reputation in the sector, particularly in areas such as Cybersecurity, has seen the sector identified as a key growth sector for the economy. So much so that the Cybersecurity sector and the IT sector have been cited as part of the ‘New Decade New Approach’ and the ‘10x Economy’ strategies as key/priority clusters.

The Department for the Economy aims for these sectors to become global leaders. The importance of the IT sector has become even stronger as a result of the pandemic, with many firms seeing higher levels of IT investment as a result of home working. TechNation found that NI-based tech firms had raised £45.6m in 2020, a record level, despite the ongoing pandemic.

Andrew Webb

Andrew Webb

It is not all plain sailing for the sector however, with skills challenges starting to bite. This is not unique to NI – the UK Employer Skills Survey noted that around 53% of IT respondents stated the main reason for having “hard to fill vacancies” was due to the “low number of applicants with the required skills.”

The strong demand for IT-related jobs has also seen the level of online job postings for IT/Computer/Software accelerate in recent weeks/months, following an initial lull in job postings at the beginning of lockdown.

The Department for the Economy estimates that there have been between 500 and 700 online job listings in the sector every month this year, mainly in Software Development. The challenge is that we aren’t producing people with the skills required by employers fast enough to meet demand.

In work that Grant Thornton has been doing with Belfast Met, we ran a series of surveys which were aimed at Employers, Teachers, Parents and Students (both Compulsory Education and Further Education students), to gather a range of views regarding the sector’s current skills demand and young people’s career paths into IT.

Positively, the sector feels confident about growth potential, with almost half of the firms surveyed suggesting they aim to add over 50 new roles in the next three years and fewer than 10% of respondents were unsure if they would recruit.

On the downside, nine in every ten respondents stated that it was either difficult or very difficult to recruit. One respondent to our inquiries captured the mood when suggesting that for every five jobs in the IT industry there is one candidate.

When there are difficulties recruiting, the first place to look for reasons why is in the pipeline – are there sufficient numbers coming through?

Our analysis with Belfast Met looked at this, not just at university or college level but right down to GCSE age.  At university level, applications for IT relevant courses are about four times oversubscribed, so there does not appear to be any immediate challenge with regards to people wishing to pursue degrees in the sector.

Similarly, at Further Education level, the total current level of enrolments across NI on IT-related courses amounted to 10,245 in the academic year 2019/20, with the majority of these being taught in Belfast MET (23.6%). The IT course is the third most popular course provided across all Further Education colleges, accounting for 9.5% of total enrolments in 2019/20.

So far so good, and demand is such that the various academies that have been run by recruiting firms have been significantly oversubscribed.

When we move down the pipeline, there does seem to be an emerging difficulty. Over the past decade the numbers taking ICT have been falling at both GCSE and A-level. The reasons for this decline will need careful consideration and potentially reflects changes in course content that may be putting off would be students.

Again, this issue was raised during in our analysis with Belfast Met when a view emerged that courses may have become too high level for the majority of students, and interest in computing is lessening as a result.

Ensuring the appropriate flow of skills is essential to unlocking the potential of a sector that has been a star performer in recent years. The various conversion courses and academies are an important part of addressing the ‘now’ but there could be bigger challenges in store in future.

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