The IT sector is providing a ray of light in Northern Ireland's job market as overall confidence slumps to yet another low, a survey of employers has found.
Recruitment firm Manpower quizzed business owners in Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK about whether they would hire or fire over the next three months.
The outlook in Northern Ireland was the gloomiest of anywhere in the UK at 5%, and the most negative in over a year. But in the UK as a whole, the forecast was upbeat with an outlook of 65.
Manpower said there were some chinks of light – including IT, according to operations manager Amanda White.
"The ICT sector is of critical importance to the recovery of the economy in Northern Ireland. We've seen year-on-year growth in this industry, and some companies are offering training and reskilling to attract the right candidates.
"Such opportunities provide some assurance for those who might have traditionally worked in stagnating sectors such as construction.
"There's also a shortage of qualified engineers in the region, so for those who are prepared to up-skill, there is still cause for optimism," she explained.
The IT sector is estimated to employ around 16,500 people in Northern Ireland. The sector has shown strong growth in recent years, and software development now accounts for over half of the jobs.
Persisting gloom in the jobs market tallies with an increasing claimant count in the province. There were 65,000 people claiming unemployment-related benefits in January, an increase of 6.2% over the year. Meanwhile, the claimant count in the UK fell 4% over the year.
Elsewhere in the UK, hiring intentions in Scotland were on the up again after a downbeat year.
But a north-south divide was emerging, with the UK's south east and south west the most optimistic but conditions tough in the north.
Negativity prevailed in the construction sector, where there has been contraction every quarter in the past five years.
Business and finance was the best performing sector – but Manpower said many of the new jobs were related to the mis-selling of PPI and interest rate swaps.
UK managing director Mark Cahill said Manpower estimated that banks had created up to 20,000 new jobs for the purpose of servicing PPI claims.
"These extra jobs are not a sign of a thriving banking sector looking optimistically to future growth – these roles are all about clearing up mistakes from the past," he said.