There are many ways of measuring how well a local economy works, but figures revealed in this newspaper today give a less than encouraging picture of the situation in Northern Ireland. It may only be a snapshot, but it shows how some of our brightest brains view their prospects here and also how unbalanced the economy is between the private and public sectors.
The Department of Education and Learning said that only around one-third of graduates who go from Northern Ireland to universities elsewhere in the UK return here to work. An obvious conclusion is that they feel there are better career opportunities elsewhere and also that average earnings will be higher by around £4,000, a not inconsiderable disparity. Put simply, we do not have enough high value jobs in the private sector here to satisfy the demand from well-educated young people.
Indeed, it is the public sector which may offer the greatest enticement. Figures show that an administrative assistant in the local civil service earns around £3,000 more per year than someone working at the same level in London. Little wonder that there were 15,000 applications for 400 administrative posts here as the salary level of around £17,500 is very good by local standards. This level of recompense creates a certain inertia in the economy as private companies find it difficult to compete for employees.
Of course pointing up the weaknesses in the local economy is the easy part, mending them is much more difficult. We urgently need more inward investment leading to high quality jobs, otherwise many more potential high fliers will be lost. Only when the private sector proves that it is on a sustained upward curve can our over-dependence on the public sector be tackled. But the private sector also needs to value its employees more if it is to succeed becoming an attractive alternative to jobs in government departments and agencies. Our reputation as a low wage economy – primarily in the private sector – mitigates against us keeping our best brains.