The latest Quarterly Economic Survey (QES) released yesterday by NI Chamber of Commerce in partnership with BDO revealed that Northern Ireland still remains a lagging region.
Whilst the UK economy overall is showing modest progress across the key indicators including sales, employment, business confidence, etc, Northern Ireland is behind the UK across all key indicators.
Both the manufacturing and services sectors here have among the lowest levels of business confidence across UK regions and the balance of both manufacturing and service firms expecting profits to increase over the coming year is half the UK average.
The survey, part of a UK-wide survey, is the first economic indicator of the quarter. It was worrying to see the number of businesses indicating an intention to recruit has fallen considering the unemployment level in Northern Ireland is above the national average. More worrying, nearly 50% of businesses with vacancies have experienced problems when recruiting staff.
Manufacturing firms continue to highlight shortages of skilled staff and the service sector highlights shortages of professional/ managerial staff. Chamber members have indicated they require trained as well as educated staff .
Although there is some excellent activity, we need further collaboration between further and higher education and industry to ensure that training and job opportunities are matched. Instead of encouraging all young people to go directly to university, we should explore models where young people could go directly to the workplace from school and have university/employer support to continue education while employed.
There are also issues with regards to apprenticeships and we welcome the review commissioned by Employment Minister Stephen Farry.
The most recent HMRC figures indicate exports have fallen in 2012 by 6%. The survey has indicated that the top four challenges to existing exporters are finance and cost-related and the biggest barrier to export for non-exporters is a lack of staff. Increasing the profile of support and signposting should reduce the barriers and growth vouchers to support staff for export development would be helpful for non-exporters.
Enterprise Ireland has introduced a team dedicated to working to inspire exporters. Perhaps we should explore establishing the same in Northern Ireland.