Northern Ireland has the weakest skills base in the UK and the North West has the weakest skills base in Northern Ireland. This matters enormously, because skills lead to jobs. Skills also create the high value, high waged economy that we all want.
Weak skills damage productivity – and this is why Northern Ireland has the poorest productivity of any part of the UK.
The task for the North West, in particular, is to provide a transition from a low skilled, low waged economy into a high skilled, high value, high productivity, high waged economy. That is the most important economic challenge we face.
It is a challenge that cannot be overcome only by training our students at school, college and university. Most of our future workforce for the next two decades are already in work – and raising the skills of those workers is a major priority.
Our existing workforce needs to improve its skill base - and that means all of us, from the youngest and newest employee, to those who are longest serving, and to those who lead the organisations.
This applies to all trade sectors, from manufacturing to retail and beyond.
Our businesses must embark on a culture change, where every organisation has a staff development programme for all staff, from the bottom to the top.
It needs to be recognised that even at senior management level, we all need to up our game and this can be enabled through the right training programmes. This can expand businesses and improve profits. We have a superb example in the success of the World Host Programme, which has provided customer service training to over 3,000 people working in Derry in the last 18 months.
The North West is different from the rest of Northern Ireland - we have few big businesses and we are excessively reliant on micro enterprises, many of whom, for the benefit of the city as a whole, we need to grow.
Improved skills provide the foundations for that growth.The Department for Employment and Learning has recognised the specific challenges facing the North West and has appointed Jo Smythe as the region’s Employment and Skills Liaison Officer. She will support the One Plan Skills Directorate as it works to raise skill levels in the city - engaging directly with employers and the local community to assist them to access relevant skills development and employment opportunities that will develop their staff and their businesses.
Together they will determine the specific skill needs, matching these with the most appropriate training and education opportunities and preparing training plans to meet those needs.
There is nothing to be feared from training - we can all benefit from raising our skills and knowledge.
As we move even further into the knowledge economy, it is essential for us all to be trained to deal with a fast-changing business and social environment.
As recently as 2005, there were more people in work in Northern Ireland with low level skills than with high level skills. Yet in the next few years the demand for high level skills will become three times greater than for low level skills.
This represents a new Industrial Revolution - where the raw materials are the knowledge and skills of individual workers and business leaders.
Workers left behind will have difficulty finding jobs - and businesses left behind are unlikely to survive.
Enhanced skills provide the answer to both these challenges.
Gavin Killeen is Deputy Vice President of the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce and its spokesperson on Education and Skills Development.