Looking forward: How Northern Ireland is ready for recovery and gearing up for growth

Looking forward: How Northern Ireland is ready for recovery and gearing up for growth

Kevin Holland, chief executive at Invest Northern Ireland, says a strong digital infrastructure, a stable economy and talented workforce will ensure Northern Ireland remains an attractive destination for investment

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19th March, 2021

This time last year, nobody could have predicted the drama and trauma that 2020 was about to unleash. In the 12 long months that have passed since the start of that very first lockdown, the consequences of the pandemic and the measures taken to fight it have permeated every layer of society. Yes, the consequences will be with us for a very long time . . . and yes, there is good cause for hope.

Across the globe, including here in Northern Ireland, we’ve powerfully demonstrated what can be achieved when people and organisations work together in the face of adversity.

In the very early days of the pandemic, for example, businesses and government organisations here joined forces to meet urgent demand for goods such as ventilators and personal protective equipment. Countless businesses have transitioned seamlessly to homeworking, home learning and remote business models – with a speed that leaves many global competitors standing.

And, today, this partnership approach continues with new initiatives being set up to drive recovery and ensure words like “furlough” and “restrictions” make way for “investment‘ and ’jobs growth‘ to dominate business conversations once again.

Another word has invaded the vocabulary too: resilience! In times of turmoil, resilience defines the winners who will emerge the strongest, and Northern Ireland has it in abundance. Let’s take a look.

We entered the pandemic on solid economic footing . . .

Going into the pandemic, our economy was in good health. Industries such as tech and financial and business services, for example, had well-established strong, robust foundations in Northern Ireland, with vibrant clusters attracting new start-ups, skilled graduates and returners and overseas investment. Indeed, in recent years we’ve welcomed a steady flow of new entrants such as Sytorus and Glantus, while the likes of Codec and FinTrU have expanded their operations here.

Even with earlier uncertainties surrounding the UK’s departure from the EU, Northern Ireland has proven itself as a hotbed for investment, particularly in R&D. Now for companies looking to serve both UK and EU markets, for example, we are the ideal location where companies can trial, manufacture and commercialise products for both markets from the same place.

Our unique location and business environment has not gone unnoticed – the number of businesses operating in Northern Ireland has increased year on year, with 6,000 more companies now registered in the country today than in 2016.

On top of this, Northern Ireland is poised to benefit from a host of City Deals which will see a total of £1.4 billion investment in our key areas of specialism – tech, data analytics, life science, advanced manufacturing and more. These City Deals are set to strengthen our already compelling offering for players in the data-driven economy by supporting practical collaborations between government, industry and universities that will unlock new innovations and R&D pathways.

We had good digital infrastructure connecting our communities . . .

As commented above, Northern Ireland’s switch to home-working has been a largely seamless experience thanks to our exceptional digital infrastructure. Northern Ireland is the number one location in the UK and Ireland for ultrafast full fibre broadband, with 46 per cent of premises across the country able to connect to a full fibre network – more than treble the UK average.

Belfast also currently ranks as the second highest city in the UK for access to gigabit-capable broadband, placing it front of the line in the UK rollout of 5G, and enabling people to work seamlessly with ultrafast broadband speeds.

Moreover, having this infrastructure in place hasn’t just helped businesses maintain productivity, it has also been essential for preserving team togetherness through digital connections. The pandemic can take a toll on mental health, and having the ability to connect and socialise online has been crucial in helping to keep up the true Northern Irish spirit and offer a warm welcome to new employees and companies.

We have people at the heart of everything we do . . .

Lastly, and most importantly, the greatest factor that has helped Northern Ireland weather the pandemic storm has been our people and strong community ties. The most recent UK-wide happiness survey by the ONS showed that our people are among the happiest, least anxious and most satisfied in the UK, as well as among the most likely to believe that the work they are doing is worthwhile and valuable to society.

This sense of togetherness has been essential during such a tough period and has reminded us all that, even when we’re unable to be together, we’re still very much a community. It has been instrumental in making the shift to home-working feasible and has allowed companies like Sensee to create an additional 300 jobs, specifically intended to be able to be done remotely.

We also have a highly skilled and ambitious workforce in Northern Ireland, as evidenced by the fact R&D roles across the country have doubled since 2010. Crucially, our workforce has always demonstrated tremendous loyalty towards employers, which has enabled firms to invest in staff training with confidence and reap long-term benefits of developing talented and committed employees.

Kevin Holland, chief executive at Invest Northern Ireland

Looking to the future

The year 2020 was unforgettable for the worst reasons but, here in Northern Ireland, we are seeing good signs of business recovery in 2021. The massive vaccination effort and new therapeutics give us cause for optimism, and now we are focused on the future as consumer demand returns.

At Invest Northern Ireland, our commitment to both indigenous businesses and inward investors has remained steadfast throughout the Covid-19 crisis.

We are well equipped to support businesses coming to Northern Ireland as one of the few global development agencies which support all aspects of business from driving and funding innovation with universities and businesses, providing access to finance through start-up equity and loan funds, helping businesses build employee skills and of course supporting businesses overseas as they expand and grow.

Find out more about how we can work together with you and your business at investni.com

Invest NI supporting a qualified workforce with Assured Skills

The development and recruitment programme is a hugely popular option for companies that are looking to build a specific capability within their business

Invest NI, as the main business development agency for Northern Ireland, is able to provide a broad spectrum of assistance packages. Whether it’s facilitating innovation, providing access to finance or supporting growth overseas, we help businesses realise their ambitions every day.

Another common reason why businesses call on our support is to build and develop their workforce.

There are plenty good reasons why.

The quality of education we offer at our schools, colleges and universities is respected the world over, for instance, and our hunger for personal development sees around 4,000 people graduate with business qualifications each year. We also have one of the youngest populations in Europe – over 50 per cent are aged under 40 – and one of the most loyal workforces, with acknowledged low labour turnover rates.

But, if that’s not enough, there’s more. A scheme that has proved extremely popular with companies that want to ensure the skills they need are there when they set up and as they grow.

What is Assured Skills?

When a company is interested in creating jobs in Northern Ireland, Assured Skills provides the necessary support to source a high-quality workforce through bespoke training and recruitment.

Fully funded by the region’s Department for the Economy, Assured Skills is a hugely popular option for companies that are looking to build a specific capability within their business.

Typically, the programme works by facilitating the development, recruitment and delivery of a six to eight week pre-employment Assured Skills Academy with a college or university partner.

Candidates are of a high calibre, and minimum entry level qualifications, such as a bachelor’s degree, can be set. Companies can recruit new staff in a variety of areas – from data analytics, software development and cyber security to business, financial and legal services and even welding.

The Academy Model is flexible and versatile, according to Jenny Santiago Young, regional director Ireland, Invest NI.

“It’s a truly unique FDI proposition that allows investors to avail of a tailored pipeline of talent that ensures they can meet their operational goals during these challenging times,” she said.

Some recent employers to have taken advantage of Assured Skills include:


Founded in December 2013, FinTrU is a multi-award winning financial services company working on the global stage with the largest Tier 1 international investment banks. Now employing over 700 people across offices in Belfast, Derry, London and New York, FinTrU works with clients to find solutions to help them meet with their regulations in areas such as legal, risk, compliance, KYC, operations and consultancy.

“The supply of talent in Northern Ireland, particularly at graduate level, is impressive and, coupled with the support from Invest NI and Assured Skills, it makes this region a highly attractive location to grow our company.”

Darragh McCarthy, chief executive officer, FinTrU


In February this year, global audit, tax, consulting and deal advisory firm KPMG, which has had a Northern Ireland presence since 1974, announced its £14 million plans to establish a new Centre of Excellence in Belfast. Its purpose will be to deliver a new range of digital consultancy services in major growth areas including Cyber Security, Applied Intelligence (AI) and Digital Transformation, creating 200 new jobs, of which 160 will be recruited through the Assured Skills programme.

“Providing our global clients with highly skilled consultancy expertise is key to our vision. After reviewing a number of locations, we had no hesitation about expanding our presence in NI. The combined support of Invest NI and the department’s Assured Skills team was very attractive and reassured us that we will be able to develop a knowledgeable and highly skilled team here in Belfast.”

Paul Toner, head of consulting at KPMG Ireland

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