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Why the jobs we've regained may not benefit everyone

Economy Watch

By Neil Gibson, director of the Northern Ireland economic policy centre

Published 27/09/2016

There has been 4,000 extra workers in the health sector
There has been 4,000 extra workers in the health sector

Since March 2012, 42,000 net new employee jobs have been created, with 7,000 coming in the year to June 2016. Sadly the recession was so harsh that this only takes the region back to the employment levels it achieved in 2008, the best part of a decade ago.

However, looking beneath the headlines it is apparent that some sectors have more than regained recessionary losses and are reaching record employee levels.

As with all data some caution must be applied due to sampling or classification errors, but the employee jobs series is one of the most reliable indicators of economic performance at a regional level. The 7,000 net employee jobs created in the year to June 2016 are spread across a range of sectors with growth recorded in eight of the 20 sectors and just four recording a contraction.

Health tops the growth charts with 4,000 extra workers, followed by professional services (3,000) and ICT (2,000). The ICT performance is particularly noteworthy as it represents growth of close to 12% in one year.

In contrast, public administration suffered a sharp loss of 4,000 jobs and there were modest losses in agriculture, retail and education. The switch between public administration jobs and professional services is an interesting demonstration of the much desired economic re-balancing.

However, the growing unease at the pressure being felt across a range of public services in Northern Ireland highlights that this is not without pain or consequences that the voting public may be rather unhappy about.

Corroborating the job creation numbers, unemployment also continued to fall in the year to June 2016, dropping by a further 6,145 to sit at just over 35,000, its lowest level since December 2008.

Indeed, there are now fewer people unemployed in Northern Ireland than there are employees in the accommodation and food sector. Though claimant unemployment has crept up slightly in the months since June, this is in line with usual seasonal patterns. Taking a longer view of the labour market, it is interesting to contrast sectoral employee levels with March 2012, when NI employee numbers reached their low point of 692,000.

Eleven of the 20 sectors are larger than at that point with just three (construction, finance and public administration) lower.

The weak labour market performance of construction is disappointing, though the classification between self-employment and employees is blurred in the sector.

Self-employment has fallen by a further 3,000 since March 2012. Despite the improvements in the housing market recently, the slowdown in public works projects has hit the sector, though looking at the output indices it has managed considerable growth since quarter four 2013 of close to a quarter, suggesting reasonable productivity gains have been made.

Turning to the employee growth areas, it is an eclectic mix. Administrative services (which includes agency workers) leads the way, having 12,000 more employees than in March 2012, with the health sector next at 9,000, followed by manufacturing and professional services with an impressive 7,000 more employees in each.

The manufacturing performance is rather remarkable and not something mimicked across the UK. It reflects a strength in the food processing sector but also a rebound in the materials sectors which produces products for construction which has recovered, if not rapidly locally, in Irish and Great Britain markets.

The recent manufacturing job losses in JTI, Michelin and Caterpillar is undoubtedly going to result in a step back for the sector, and the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the agri-food sector in particular do suggest tougher times ahead.

But the performance cannot be ignored - the labour supply, skills and the support/incentives systems clearly have helped the sector perform very strongly.

The eclectic nature of the recovery means that there has been job growth across the region, a very important aspect of Northern Ireland's economic and political landscape. With a growth 'basket' containing health, tourism, industry, professional services and the arts, it is a very healthy picture of diverse success.

This is welcome as our workforce has diverse talents, and a narrow employment structure may deliver some clustering and specialisation benefits but is likely to pass many places and people by.

Looking ahead, it is extraordinarily difficult to set forecasts at this point in time given the wealth of unknowns.

However, many of the factors underpinning the growth enjoyed in many sectors since 2012, most notably skills and talent, will not change, whatever the exit terms from Europe are. Indeed, some trading conditions may improve depending on the balance between currency levels and tariff costs (where applicable).

Forecasts need to be viewed in light of the assumptions they make about the terms of the EU divorce. The labour market has finally managed to clamber back to the level it enjoyed before the great recession, but it is a very different labour market today with many sectors growing rapidly and reaching new previously unscaled heights and others continuing to find the post-recession environment tough; indeed, the public administration sector is still enduring its recession.

This newly shaped Northern Ireland labour market faces fresh challenges in light of Brexit and the ever shifting sands of competition, but the broad spread of growth proves once again that success is not determined by the sector a firm operates in.

In next week's Economy Watch, we hear from Ulster Bank chief economist Richard Ramsey

Belfast Telegraph

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