From education to employment

“Lifelong Learning Revolution” Needed to Tackle 210,000 Worker Gap

  • By 2030, the number of pensioners per 100 working age adults in Northern Ireland will increase from 26 to 30, causing significant pressures on public finances.
  • To maintain its current ratio and protect living standards, Northern Ireland would need an additional 210,000 workers by 2030, or an equivalent increase in productivity.
  • At the same time automation will bring significant disruption and change to Northern Ireland’s future workforce, with 49% of jobs having a high potential for automation.
  • IPPR is calling for a renewed focus on lifelong learning in Northern Ireland to boost productivity, and prepare for automation and ageing.

IPPR has warned that there are significant challenges facing Northern Ireland, including an ageing population and automation.


Northern Ireland must reform its skills system in order to prepare for the future, according to the UK’s leading progressive think-tank.


Northern Ireland can expect to see significant increases in the pensioner population, rising from there being 26 pensioners per 100 workers in Northern Ireland now, to 30 pensioners per 100 workers by 2030, and 35 per 100 workers by 2040. Northern Ireland would need an increase of around 210,000 in its working age population by 2030 to maintain current ratios. Increases in productivity will therefore be needed to make the most of the remaining working age population and protect living standards.


At the same time, around 49% of jobs in Northern Ireland are at high potential of automation, meaning almost half of jobs will see substantial change in the skills required in the future. However, almost 80% of the Northern Ireland workforce of 2030, and almost 60% of the workforce of 2040, have already left compulsory education, showing that changes to school education, and training for young people will not be sufficient to manage the huge disruption we face.

According to today’s report, Northern Ireland must work towards a vision which would see:


  • A significant increase in learning provision for older workers, with a renewed focus on genuine lifelong learning, retraining and education.
  • Young people staying in the skills system for longer, through meaningful learning, and support for young people to secure good jobs with prospects rather than risk being stuck in low paid and insecure careers.
  • A focus for the skills system on boosting productivity and career progression, moving people out of low pay, to tackle automation and ageing head on.

Russell Gunson, a Director at IPPR, said:


“When it comes to preparing for the future economy, Northern Ireland faces some very real challenges that are just not getting the attention they need.

“To be ready for ageing and automation we need to get our colleges, universities and in-working training ready for the future. We need a greater focus on training and learning for over-25s already in the workplace. We also need to do better at getting our young people into genuinely positive situations that set them up for careers with prospects rather than a career stuck in low pay and insecurity.


“Education and training will be crucial to meeting the challenges and taking the opportunities of automation and ageing. But with powersharing still not back up and running, they’re not getting the attention they need. We need action now to rethink education and learning provision and if we can’t wait for the politicians, we’ll need to see employers and the skills system move ahead without them.”


IPPR Scotland is Scotland’s progressive think tank. We are cross-party, progressive, and neutral on the question of Scotland’s independence. IPPR Scotland is dedicated to supporting and improving public policy in Scotland, working tirelessly to achieve a progressive Scotland. 


Today’s report is the second of three which will be published as part of IPPR Scotland’s work which looks at what a 21st century skills system should look like for Northern Ireland and Scotland.


The report has been undertaken with support from the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL). 


The report outlines a series of measures of success for the skills system in Scotland:


For young people, a successful skills system would:

  • retain greater numbers of young people within the skills system for longer, whether in college, university, apprenticeship or other in-work training
  • increase the number of young people reaching genuinely positive destinations
  • increase participation rates from those who leave the skills system for insecure work or jobs with lower prospects
  • reduce and minimise the proportion of young people who exit the skills system with no, or low, qualifications.

For mid-career learners, a successful skills system would:

  • increase participation rates in the skills system from employees of all ages and at stages of their career, with flexible learning options from the most intense to the most part-time
  • contribute to increased career progression rates, particularly prioritising moving those in low paid work into higher paying jobs
  • develop new proactive skills programmes aimed at providing ‘progression ladders’ up to new careers for people at risk of being displaced out of the labour market, ensuring their skill levels are protected through disruption
  • track and recognise prior learning across all component parts of the skills system and throughout careers, offering proactive career-long advice and guidance.

For employers, a successful skills system would:

  • secure higher levels of employers investing in skills, with higher levels of total investment, in order to boost productivity – improving individual employer performance and the economy as a whole
  • increase levels of skills utilisation for employers across all sizes, with greater levels of public funding contingent on employer action
  • deliver greater employer investment in low-skilled workers, workers in the SME sector, and self-employed and gig-economy workers.

As a whole, a successful skills system would:

  • engage the whole of the population in meaningful learning, education and training throughout their careers to maximise and realise their potential
  • reduce needless duplication between different component parts of the system
  • deliver the widespread adoption and embedding of new technologies in the delivery of learning
  • implement new responsive and modular curricula shared across parts of the skills system
  • increase the take-up of digital skills learning across the skills system and across age groups
  • deliver greater levels of conditionality on investment of public funds against tests of clear impact (such as skills utilisation, increased pay and progression and improved productivity)
  • create ‘smart’ information, advice and guidance for learners, that tracks learning across time, and tailors proactive interventions to individuals
  • increase participation rates from self-employed and gig economy workers and those in insecure employment
  • see greater progress in delivering more equal access and outcomes for learners in the skills system from all backgrounds and groups.

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