Anna Wallace (Director of Public Affairs, PwC) and David Elliott (Editor, Ulster Business)
Despite the spectre of Brexit, the absence of a Stormont Executive and increased pressures on the education and health budgets, Northern Ireland’s leading companies seem pretty confident about their future.
Last week PwC hosted a New Landscape Question Time event at Titanic Belfast, where an invited audience of over 50 of the region’s top manufacturing and service companies looked to the future of trade, talent and technology and how their businesses would fare in tomorrow’s world. And while we were confident that a high-performing business audience would demonstrate a high level of preparedness for the future, the extent to which they had anticipated the challenges of trade and talent, and embraced the opportunities of technology, was particularly welcome.
Chaired by Ulster Business’ David Elliott and using some nifty polling software, 78% of the audience confirmed right away that they were already exporting goods and services. Helped by a panel comprising, Michael Moore, PwC Senior Adviser (and former Secretary of State for Scotland); Anna Wallace, PwC Director of Political Relations, Ian McConnell, PwC Financial Services Partner, Shaun Kingsbury, former CEO, Green Investment Bank and Luke Redmond, Director from PwC Ireland, there was a spirited exchange around the implications of Brexit for both parts of Ireland.
And despite the exchange between EU and UK officials, the audience was pretty confident that Brexit, whatever its short-term challenges, would be good for them, with 67% confident that Brexit would bring their business new competitive opportunities inside the next five years.
When the talk turned to talent, the baseline was less rosy, with three-quarters (74%) confirming that they currently couldn’t attract either the talent or the skills they needed for their business. There was a broad consensus that education was not preparing young people for the world of work, that apprenticeships offered new opportunities but some schools remain focused on university admission league tables and that the low numbers taking up STEM subjects was adding to a potential crisis.
Nevertheless, as an alternative to accessing the talent and skills they need, almost nine-in-ten (89%) of the audience said that their business was currently investing or planning to invest in improving existing workforce skills. This was partially prompted by the 69% of the business leaders present who said that the skills their business would need in five years would be very different to the skills they employed today.
Turning to technology and unsurprisingly, 72% told us that in five years’ time, technology would have contributed to increasing their international competitiveness. What was more surprising however, was that seven-in-ten (71%) were already investing in new technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Augmented Reality – policies that were closely linked to the current investment in up-skilling their workforce. But looking to that short five-year horizon, 89% also told us that that new technology will have automated tasks in their business currently undertaken by human workers.
The responses by leading Northern Ireland businesses tended to support our PwC’s research, published in our March 2017 UK Economic Outlook, which suggested that up to 30% of UK jobs could potentially be at high risk of automation by the early 2030s and that for individual workers, the key differentiating factor would be education. For those with just GCSE-level education or lower, the estimated potential risk of automation is as high as 46% in the UK, but this falls to only around 12% for those with undergraduate degrees or higher.
Our New Landscape Question Time was a candid and revealing picture of how some of our leading companies and exporters view to the future of trade, talent and technology. Most gratifying was the awareness of the implications of technology, the importance of skills development and the potential of Brexit to improve their competitive environment.
But perhaps the question of the evening, which caused even the most articulate on the panel to pause was:
As the evening came to an end, both panel and audience decided that the jury was definitely out.