Economy Minister Gordon Lyons has highlighted the important role further education colleges play in driving Northern Ireland's economic recovery through the delivery of practical higher education courses.
During a visit to Northern Regional College's Ballymena campus, the Minister met staff and students to hear about some of the exceptional higher education courses available.
Speaking after touring the Advanced Manufacturing Workshop where students were on hand to demonstrate the technical skills they have developed through their higher education programmes, the Minister said:
"The higher education opportunities available at our further education colleges are extensive, linked to employer need and provide opportunities for learners of all ages and all backgrounds to access a variety of pathways that lead to employment and further study.
"I was pleased to witness at first hand the top class facilities on offer at Northern Regional College where students can develop the practical side of their learning. This is valuable experience and builds skills which add to the employability and future prospects of learners.
"As we move into a decade of economic transformation around our 10X Economic Vision, we move into an era that will be defined by the application of technology, data and innovation. I want learners to access qualifications that employers need and want employers to have access to appropriately skilled and qualified learners.
"The number one challenge for businesses continues to be accessing the right skills and talent. Higher education pathways at the further education colleges are helping us to deliver on these ambitions and address this challenge through enhancing the talents of the current and future workforce."
During his visit the Minister also met a number of students who will be competing in the Industrial Robotics and CNC Milling categories at the national finals of this year's WorldSkills UK in November, and also as part of the UK Team in Industrial Robotics at the International WorldSkills competition in Luxembourg.
The Minister said:
"The success of these students in reaching not just the WorldSkills UK finals but also to be representing the UK on the international stage is testament not only to their own personal ability and dedication but also to the practical skills and knowledge taught on Foundation Degrees.
"I congratulate every student on their achievements so far and wish them well in the WorldSkills competition. I would also encourage anyone considering higher education to take a look at the fantastic higher education opportunities available at our local further education colleges."
Commenting on the ministerial visit, Christine Brown, Vice Principal Teaching and Learning at Northern Regional College, said:
"It was great to welcome the Minister to Northern Regional College today to highlight the important and valuable contribution being made by the FE sector in Levels 4 and 5 delivery to thousands of students across Northern Ireland. Our further education colleges offer first class opportunities for students to study an array of courses that will provide them with valuable skills and qualifications that will support them into their next step in education or employment.
"As we face an increasing skills gap, the importance of seamless progression from study to career has never been more critical. Courses such as Higher Level Apprenticeships give students key experiences in highly skilled sectors including accountancy, advanced manufacturing and cyber security and we are seeing growing numbers of students go straight into skilled roles with leading employers.
"With the results period fast approaching, today's visit is a timely reminder that a partnership approach is essential to ensuring that students are equipped to make informed decisions in progressing to higher education. We will continue to work with the Minister and his Department to promote provision at Levels 4 and above across the six FE colleges, all of which provide world class experience and opportunities to progress to either further study with university partners or directly into employment."