By Kirsty McManus, National Director, Institute of Directors (IoD) Northern Ireland

What a difference just a few months can make.

Before Christmas, Brexit was still very much up in the air while there appeared very little prospect of the Northern Ireland Executive retuning.

Fast forward to today and we have a new group of ministers sitting around the executive table at Stormont and the UK’s exit from Europe is (at least somewhat) less clouded in confusion than it had been previously.

It is imperative however that the nature of Northern Ireland’s future trading relationship with the EU and the rest of the UK becomes yet clearer over the coming months.

The prize of Northern Ireland being a gateway economy for both the EU and Great Britain is there, but the necessary details to allow this to happen, and for unfettered east-west trade to be maintained, must be nailed down during this period of negotiations.

A recent survey of IoD members across the UK, found that around two-thirds deemed EU market access as important to their organisation, and 8 in 10 think it is important for the economy as a whole.

Indeed, for the majority of IoD members, maintaining ease of trade with the single market is more important than being able to diverge from EU regulations.

Responding to the publication by the UK of its negotiating mandate for the Brexit talks, many business leaders had hoped for a more balanced approach on alignment and divergence – not least because of implications for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland arising from the revised Brexit deal.

With so little time remaining until the end of the transition period, both sides must now work flat-out to bridge the gap and secure a deal.

As ever, the eyes of the IoD and the wider business community will be on how future skills policy will be shaped, and especially so in Northern Ireland where we are heavily reliant on EU workers particularly in sectors such as agriculture and hospitality.

Securing post-Brexit labour mobility is a major priority for directors as the UK heads into the negotiations, although this will be substantially different from the current free movement rules, given the Government’s new immigration policy.

It means we will likely have to be more creative to address the worsening skills shortages that are surely to come.

As an organisation, we have long called for a new approach to tackling skills and we look forward to the Department for the Economy’s new strategy to be brought forward later this year.

With unemployment levels at an all-time low in the region, it appears finding people to fill vacancies will be a challenge.

Conversely, there is a huge cohort of economically inactive people – those neither in nor seeking work.

Data released by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency last week revealed that there were some 21,000 NEETs locally in the three months to December 2019.- that is young people not in education, employment or training.

That represents 10.4% of those aged from 16-24, roughly in line with the UK average. Worryingly however, the vast majority (17,000) were not seeking work or available to start employment.

A fresh look at how we reinvigorate that inactive group, enticing those that are able to join the workforce is nothing short of essential.

That will take the collective efforts of the business community, academia, and politicians, the impact of which could be truly transformative, allowing us to capitalise on the benefits, as well as deal with the challenges that lie ahead following Brexit.