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Northern Ireland Executive Ministers, departmental policy leads, academics, industry leaders and community groups came together yesterday in Belfast to mark the launch of EPIC Futures NI, a £4.8 million policy action group led by Ulster University, that will address economic inactivity by identifying hidden unemployed groups and supporting them into fair and meaningful work.

The three-year project was endorsed and welcomed by Communities Minister Gordon Lyons, Economy Minister Conor Murphy and Executive Chair of the Economic and Social Research Council Stian Westlake during the event on Wednesday 6 March at the La Mon Hotel & Country Club.

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 am pleased to launch this Project, and 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.”

Economy Minister Conor Murphy said:

“I am pleased to welcome the launch of Epic Futures. The aims of Epic Futures align well with my Economic Vision to promote good jobs, boost productivity and address regional imbalances. The research will provide us with a better understanding of our skills and labour market, with the overall aim of bringing people back to the workforce.  I look forward to hearing more about the work of Epic Futures and the positive effects it can have on my Economic Vision.”

Finance Minister Dr Caoimhe Archibald MLA said:

“Collaboration is vital if we are to identify solutions to the barriers faced by those who are part of hidden unemployment groups. I am pleased my Department has been able to support the EPIC Futures programme which will help to fill current research gaps and develop an understanding of skills and employability which ultimately will help people back into work.”

Professor Kristel Miller, Co-Director of the project and Professor of Entrepreneurship & Small Business Development, Ulster University Business School commented:

“We are proud to have welcomed the Executive Chair of the ESRC Stian Westlake, Communities Minister Gordon Lyons, Economy Minister Conor Murphy and our extended group of partners to celebrate the launch of EPIC Futures NI. With the highest economic inactivity rate in the UK at just under 26%, we wanted our partnership to support hidden unemployed groups in Northern Ireland, essentially the individuals who would like to work but face barriers in doing so, the largest of which are women, the over 50’s, and individuals with disabilities.

"In recognition that this is a cross-departmental, Northern Ireland wide challenge, EPIC Futures NI will work collaboratively right across government, industry, education and community to enrich our understanding of the groups facing barriers to employment and provide a data-driven evidence base for meaningful policy change that supports the hidden unemployed into work. The input and endorsement of so many stakeholders indicates the strength of our project’s potential, and I look forward to guiding the team as we deliver on our mission throughout the next three years.”

Professor Liam Maguire, Pro Vice-Chancellor (PVC) Research at Ulster University added:

“At Ulster we aspire to make the impacts of our research visible, and to ensure our partnerships have impact on the challenges of our modern-day world. Tackling Northern Ireland’s challenges in skills and employability requires a collaborative approach, and we heard this week how that will unfold throughout the next three-years of EPIC Futures NI.”

Reflecting the collaborative nature of the project, attendees also heard from a panel of experts, entitled ‘People and places: a holistic approach to aid NI's skills and labour challenges,’ which included:

  • Deirdre Ward, Department for Communities, EPIC Futures Co-director
  • Rachael Singleton, Department of Finance, Innovation Lab, EPIC Futures Co-director
  • Graeme Wilkinson, Department for the Economy, EPIC Futures Co-director
  • Anne Green, The Local Policy Innovation Partnership Hub
  • Karen Smith, Disability Action
  • Mark Magill Ulster, University Economic Policy Centre, EPIC Futures NI Co-director
  • Panel Chair: Heather Moorhead, Director of the Northern Ireland Confederation for Health and Social Care

About EPIC Futures

Titled EPIC Futures NI (Economic and Social Partnering for Inclusive Innovation and Collaboration) - 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.

Taking a holistic approach to addressing Northern Ireland’s skills and labour market challenges, EPIC Futures NI is supported by 11 business and community organisations as co-investigators: Queen’s University Belfast, Open University, Disability Action, Women’s Resource and Development Agency, Women’sTec, Involve, Business in the Community Northern Ireland, Social Enterprise Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Confederation of Health and Social Care, Chief Executives’ Forum and Centre for Cross Border Studies.

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 a 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 - 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.
  • Administer a £1 million flexible commissioning fund to advance knowledge and practice related to NI’s labour market.

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.