An economy that benefits everyone

It’s been a successful year for businesses in Northern Ireland in the face of ongoing challenges, and that’s reflected in the caliber of companies making this year’s Belfast Telegraph Top 100 Companies list.

Gordon Lyons, Minister of Economy

Gordon Lyons, Minister of Economy

The companies in the Top 100 represent a wide range of sectors for which Northern Ireland has a strong and growing reputation: financial services, IT, manufacturing, food and drink, engineering, construction and many more.

We cannot deny the deep and widespread impact the pandemic has had on the economy, both locally and globally.

My predecessors and I in the Department have provided some £600million in financial support to local businesses – protecting businesses and protecting jobs. Local businesses have also demonstrated their resilience and innovation in navigating and responding to the challenges presented by Covid-19.

Labor market figures show the highest number of salaried employees on record in Northern Ireland, and we have seen more than 11 consecutive months of staff numbers above pre-Covid levels. Meanwhile, the NI Composite Economic Index for the fourth quarter of 2021 showed growth in economic output over the previous two-year period.

But great challenges lie ahead. Global turmoil is causing energy costs to rise rapidly, commodity costs are rising almost daily and we are likely to see inflation continue to rise over the next 12 months.

My energy strategy, The Path to Net Zero, and the associated 2022 Action Plan with its 22 actions, set out a vision to ensure self-sufficiency in affordable renewable energy for Northern Ireland.

The path to energy decarbonization has the potential to transform our local economy. We will develop the skills base for the low-carbon economy by giving our young people the opportunity to drive our growth. We are developing a series of new initiatives, including a £10m green innovation fund, a hydrogen center of excellence and a one-stop-shop for energy advice.

Another key support measure has been my Economic Recovery Action Plan and, in particular, its grassroots work, the High Street Scheme.

Official statistics showed the scheme to be a huge success in achieving its twin political goals of redirecting people to the main street and boosting the local economy in the wake of the pandemic. A total of £136.5 million was injected directly into local retail, service and hospitality businesses through over 3.7 million Spend Local card transactions, across all regions of North Ireland.

An average of £97.94 was spent on each card, with many people adding extra spend to the total amount. Direct feedback from businesses and organizations such as Retail NI has been overwhelmingly positive, with businesses reporting increased footfall, spending, and consumer confidence as a direct result of the program.

At a more strategic level, the 10X Economic Vision sets out how we will seek to make Northern Ireland one of the leading small economies in the world.

The vision is built on five steps to success: focusing on our strengths in priority technologies and clusters where we can be global leaders; investing in and supporting our employees; spreading innovation in our economy; adopt a new funding approach; and focus and capitalize on what makes Northern Ireland unique.

The skills of our staff are essential to making the Vision a reality. To that end, I launched Skills for a 10X Economy, our strategy to help more people improve their job prospects and realize their economic potential.

Our local workforce is already talented, but it is important that we capitalize and build on this base. Access to skills and talent is the number one issue for businesses in all sectors of our economy.

Skills for a 10X Economy explains how we will develop vocational and technical qualifications through our higher education institutions and rebalance higher education with a focus on STEM to equip people for the jobs of the future , which our local businesses are already starting to offer.

Local businesses have also benefited from my department’s Assured Skills program over the past year, with our colleges and universities providing industry-relevant pre-employment training to Assured Skills Academies participants. Academy participants learn the skills they need to fill positions in fields such as financial and professional services, cybersecurity, software engineering and many more.

At the same time, I have initiated a global reflection on the professional orientation of people, from school age to all stages of adulthood. The aim is to ensure that they benefit from the opportunities that emerge from a thriving economy, and that employers can access the skills they need to grow their business.

The Northern Ireland City and Growth Deal program will unlock £1.5 billion of public and private sector investment and create thousands of new and better jobs across Northern Ireland, strengthening our position as a destination for investment over the next decade and beyond. .

As part of the scheme, in March I announced funding of over £170 million for three cutting-edge innovation projects at Queen’s University Belfast, including the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre, which will be a springboard for manufacturing innovation in Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, Ulster University will lead multimillion-pound projects focusing on creative industries, data analytics, robotics and digital health that will accelerate our position as an innovation hub.

These projects will be linked at scale to UK-wide networks, helping to build Northern Ireland’s digital innovation, skills and capabilities to deliver inclusive economic growth and employment opportunities. in the economy of the future.

Alongside all these measures, there is another important program that will act as a catalyst for our future economy – the Stratum project. Funded under the DUP/Conservative Confidence and Supply Deal, this key measure represents a total investment of nearly £200 million and transforms broadband connectivity to 85,000 premises in rural Northern Ireland.

The Stratum Project delivery contract was awarded to Fibrus Networks Ltd in November 2020 and has so far seen over 27,000 premises equipped with gigabit-enabled broadband infrastructure.

When completed in 2025, all Stratum project premises will be able to benefit from access to gigabit-enabled fiber optic broadband, which will significantly reduce the connectivity gap here and positively impact families and businesses.

Another cause for optimism is the continued opening up of international travel. Tourism was a billion pound sector for Northern Ireland before Covid. Our tourism recovery action plan outlines how we will reach and exceed this level again.

We have supported increased marketing in Britain by Tourism Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland by Tourism NI and can hopefully look forward to a successful summer season for our local tourism and hospitality sector.

When I have visited the United Arab Emirates and the United States in recent months, I have been struck by the positivity and high regard that the international business community has for Northern Ireland as a place of investment and trade and we can be proud of what we have to offer the world stage.

It is therefore with confidence that I believe that we can continue to grow and evolve our local economy despite the new and emerging challenges we face. Together, we can make the 10X vision a reality and create an economy that benefits all members of society.

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