EMPLOYMENT and Learning Minister Dr Stephen Farry paid a visit to Larne on Friday to discuss the future economic prospects for residents in the borough.
Dr Farry came to the town at the request of East Antrim Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson, who hosted a round-table discussion at Willowbank Business Park with local educationalists, training professionals and business leaders.
Those present talked about the challenges facing the Larne area and how to get more local people into education, training and employment.
Speaking to the Larne Times before the event, Dr Farry said: “Larne, like so many so many other parts of Northern Ireland, is going through difficult economic times, but the recovery will come and there will be an opportunity for significant job creation.
“I am here in Larne today to engage with local business stakeholders and to hear their views on skill requirements, employability and how we can help make the local economy more efficient.”
The Minister said that while Larne’s economy had suffered a number of major blows in the past year – most notably the swathe of redundancies at FG Wilson/Caterpillar – he was confident that the engineering sector still had a “strong future” in the town.
He added that the ongoing A8 upgrade coupled with the Port of Larne would help ensure that the town remains a key transport hub in years to come.
And while the Minister felt there was room for expansion in terms of job creation in Larne, he urged local people to have “a greater degree of labour mobility and be more open-minded” if they are to reap the benefits.
“I accept that it would be better for the people of Larne if more jobs were created in the town itself, but it is not up to the government to tell companies where to set up shop. It may be the case that jobs are created in the wider East Antrim or Co Antrim area,” Dr Farry added.
The latest economic overview for Larne, compiled by LEDCOM in March, indicated that 1,093 people were claiming unemployment benefit – a rise of over 25 per cent from the same time last year.
And youth unemployment continues to pose a problem in the borough, with over 26 per cent of claimants being under the age of 25.
Dr Farry highlighted the need to tackle the issue of high youth unemployment in Larne and added: “I acknowledge that there is a particular challenge in this regard, but this is an issue which is not unique to Larne.”
The Minister pointed to a number of initiatives which aim to get young people aged between 18-14 into employment, such as the Youth Employment Scheme (YES).
He added: “Without relevant recent work experience many young people, including those recently graduated, are finding it difficult to compete for the jobs that are available. YES offers participants the chance to take part in short or long term work placements to develop their employability skills.”
Dr Farry also referred to the Jobs and Opportunities Fair which took place in Larne back in February and was attended by hundreds of young people.
“I was very impressed and pleased with this event,” the Minister said. “It exceeded my expectations and I am sure that proof of its success will come in the months ahead.”
Speaking at the event in Willowbank, Stewart Dickson MLA said that while Dr Farry’s Department was doing a lot to assist those seeking work and further education, he added that it was also important that politicians, educationalists and business people continue to work together to help create new opportunities for local people.
He added: “This has been a very difficult year for many people in Larne, with the job losses and uncertainty resulting from changes at FG Wilson/Caterpillar.
“The Department has some excellent schemes in place to help those seeking work and training, and this meeting will give an opportunity for stakeholders to provide direct feedback to the Minister.
“Larne has huge potential – with the second largest port in Northern Ireland, it is a gateway to Scotland and further afield, and I will continue to lobby the Minister to ensure that this gateway is properly served by our transport infrastructure.
“It would be remiss of me not to mention that potential we have for boosting tourism in East Antrim.
“Larne is historically and culturally rich, but there are a number of changes that need to occur to realise the potential that the tourism sector can provide.
“All of us here can help to bring about the economic revolution, get people back into work and training, and bring about a shared and prosperous future for everyone in Larne,” Mr Dickson concluded.