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Ulster University is set to lead a £4.8 million cross-departmental, Northern Ireland wide research and policy action group that will tackle economic inactivity by identifying the hidden unemployed, typically those individuals who would like to work but face barriers in doing so, to tackle economic inactivity in Northern Ireland.

Titled EPIC (Economic and Social Partnering for Inclusive Innovation and Collaboration) Futures NI - the Local Policy Innovation Partnership is the first of its kind in the UK and is supported by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funding as part of its work to create opportunities and improve outcomes locally.

Bringing three government departments together (Communities, Economy and Finance) to work in an open forum with stakeholders in research, education, industry and community organisations, EPIC Futures NI will fill data and knowledge gaps on the hidden unemployed; mainly women, the over 50’s, and individuals with disabilities; to develop an evidence base and inform policies and programmes that support these groups to secure fair and meaningful work.

A key deliverable of the three-year project will be to establish a Labour Market Observatory, an online, freely available resource filling labour market data gaps in Northern Ireland and improving knowledge and intelligence about Northern Ireland’s current and future skills needs.

The three-year EPIC Futures NI project will:

  • Deliver a programme of activities which identify and fill research gaps and develop an understanding of skills and employability in NI, both overall and at local level.
  • Analyse trends and behaviours in the current and future labour market in NI.
  • Collaboratively identify, and co-create, evidence-based interventions and develop policy recommendations which aid NI’s skills and employability challenges.
  • Facilitate partnership building across government departments, councils, community representatives, industry and education, focused on skills and employability.
  • Enhance understanding of how NI’s unique cultural and political nuances influence our skills and labour market challenges.
  • Develop a Labour Market Observatory for NI.
  • Administer a £1 million flexible commissioning fund to advance knowledge and practice related to NI’s labour market.

Led by the Ulster University Business School, the policy focused action group is co-directed by the Department for Communities, Department of Finance, Department for the Economy and the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre.

The context in NI

Economic inactivity is a key strategic challenge to the future economic and social prosperity of Northern Ireland. The region has the highest economic inactivity rate across all UK regions at just under 26%. With unemployment rates in Northern Ireland the lowest of any UK region, a greater proportion of those not in work are furthest away from the labour market, making it difficult for employers to fill vacancies.

In recognition that economic inactivity is a cross-departmental, Northern Ireland wide challenge, EPIC Futures NI will work collaboratively and holistically across government, industry, education providers and community groups with co-investigators Business in the Community Northern Ireland, the Centre for Cross Border Studies, Chief Executives’ Forum, Disability Action, Involve, Northern Ireland Confederation for Health and Social Care, The Open University NI, Queen’s University Belfast, Social Enterprise Northern Ireland, Womens Resource and Development Agency and Women’sTec.

The largest groups of the hidden unemployed in Northern Ireland are women, individuals with disabilities and those over 50, which will be the main target groups for EPIC Futures NI. However, the flexible commissioning fund will administer research calls which will invite proposals for topics which enrich our understanding of other groups facing barriers to employment.

Professor Paul Bartholomew, Vice-Chancellor of Ulster University said:

“We are excited to bring together for the first time, multiple departments, agencies and stakeholders to look at how we can holistically and creatively unlock Northern Ireland’s labour market potential. Ulster University, the Departments for Communities, Finance and the Economy along with 11 wider stakeholder organisations will look at how to tackle economic inactivity by identifying hidden unemployed groups and informing policy change that widens access to the labour market.”

Professor Kristel Miller, Professor of Entrepreneurship & Small Business Development, Ulster University Business School explained the context:

“It’s widely accepted that economic inactivity is a key strategic challenge to the future of economic and social prosperity in Northern Ireland, and we know that future growth will rely on reactivating and empowering hidden unemployed groups. EPIC Futures NI will audit existing data before engaging with departments, businesses and local communities right across Northern Ireland to engage in research and support activity which ultimately creates pathways and entry points into the labour market.

"We are taking this innovative approach in recognition of NI’s unique culture and heritage which underpin our institutional structures, individual behaviours and actions. EPIC Futures NI is about ensuring no one group is left behind, in order to safeguard the economic prosperity of Northern Ireland”.

Minister for Communities, Gordon Lyons said:

Economic inactivity is a long-standing issue in Northern Ireland and a priority for my Department, which has played a leading role in securing funding for the EPIC project. The funding will enable research grants which will focus on economic activity as well as independent and in-depth evaluations of existing DfC initiatives. I look forward to working collaboratively across central government, academia and with local stakeholders, and to availing of the Project’s valuable insights in shaping policy and provision in supporting people into work.”

Finance Minister Dr Caoimhe Archibald said:

"I am pleased that my department has been able to help support the EPIC Futures project to secure funding. Behavioural science has a key role to play in shaping our public services and the policies that drive them, and I look forward to seeing the results of the project in meeting the challenge of economic inactivity. I also welcome the collaborative nature of this project, which reflects the approach I intend to take in tackling some of key issues facing public services going forward.”

Economy Minister Conor Murphy said:

“I am delighted that the Ulster University has been successful in its bid to create a local policy innovation partnership. My Department will work in close collaboration with the Ulster University team as we use this evidence base to tackle economic inactivity and create a more regionally balanced economy.”

Mark Magill, Principal Economist, Ulster University Economic Policy Centre said:

“The Ulster University Economic Policy Centre is delighted to be part of EPIC Futures NI, a pioneering new think tank for Northern Ireland which brings together a diverse range of expertise across the research and policy community. The project will facilitate further research into crucial areas including future skills needs, lifelong learning, labour market inclusion for vulnerable groups and regional balance. Through this new partnership we aim to contribute to a rich programme of research which will help provide the evidence base to develop effective policy that moves us towards our ambition of a local labour market that works for all.”