Recent past will give reassurance that Northern Ireland's capable of generating more jobs
Northern Ireland's biggest private sector employers have been growing. The job market has been more stable in the last two years than many observers expected. Many businesses did experience ups and downs in the employment they offered.
The largest private sector employer is Tesco. The Equality Commission employment monitoring report for 2015, just published, reports that the supermarket had 10,202 employees, more than double the next largest private sector employer, Bombardier, which had 4,882 employees.
The 50 largest employers across Northern Ireland each had more than 810 employees.
The changing picture of private sector employment in these larger businesses shows some big changes. There have been only a few changes in the names of the largest, and 45 of the largest businesses in 2014 are still in this group in the 2015 review.
Of those disappearing, only Gallaher, or JTI as it became, had disappeared because of the closure of the plant. Still in the list, but with an expectation of closure, is the Michelin plant in Ballymena. All the others, by a small margin, are still in business and have just over 800 employees.
The significant new arrivals, climbing to the top 50, include Charles Hurst, Heatons (NI), Randox Laboratories and Karro Food. The largest employment increase recorded in the two monitoring surveys was for First Derivatives, the successful Newry-based IT company.
Although there has only been one closure (and another pending) in the group of 50, there have been very varied experiences.
Two basic statistical indicators illustrate the dynamic of these firms: overall employment increased and there were major degrees of difference between businesses in each sector.
Employment in the 50 businesses increased by 2,600 between the two monitoring dates.
The additional jobs were in the following sectors:
Business services +1,683
Within each of the sectors, experiences varied.
Of the 50 businesses, exactly half had either an increase in employment or a decrease.
For the large retailers, the net increase was a small fraction of the total employment. In this group, Tesco stands out, with an increase of 617 employees during the year.
Only two large retailers recorded a fall in employment over 10% of the starting levels. These were Dunnes Stores and Next.
The manufacturers recorded a stronger jobs picture than might have been predicted.
Two-thirds of the manufacturers showed increased employment and three in particular had increases of over 10% of their initial level: Almac, Schrader Electronics and Terex. The buoyant sector in this group of 50 big firms related to providing business services or call centre facilities. Four of this group of 11 posted employment increases of over 10%. They were First Derivatives, Citigroup, Concentrix and PwC.
The call centre businesses have delivered successful growth in recent years, partly because of the availability of suitable employees and a competitive labour costs advantage. Call centres are, of course, bidding for contracts in very competitive conditions, which means that, on occasion, at short notice, there can be large changes in their contract successes (or failures).
Recent employment in the four larger clearing banks is reflected in the continuing fall in numbers: 363 fewer employees than a year earlier.
In terms of the forthcoming economic strategy being prepared by the Executive and linked to the role of Invest NI, the record of the recent past will give some reassurance that Northern Ireland has proved capable of generating more jobs. Simply from the employment totals it is not clear whether there is a justification to claim success for the knowledge economy.
The strong positive record for firms such as Almac, Schrader Electronics, Terex, Norbrook Laboratories, Seagate Technologies, First Derivatives, Citigroup and Pwc is encouraging. The large policy question for 2017 is whether the strategy and shape of Invest NI would merit a re-orientation in the post-Brexit environment.