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Northern Ireland employment rates still to match high of pre-recession

By Margaret Canning

Northern Ireland’s rate of unemployment has fallen to 3.5%, bringing the economy here close to full employment, it’s been claimed.

The unemployment rate was down by 1.8% year-on-year, which the Department for the Economy said was a “significant” change.

And the level of unemployment for December to February was below the UK’s rate of 4.2% and the second-lowest unemployment rate of the UK regions.

The employment rate was also up slightly to 69.5%.

At 27.9%, the rate of economic inactivity was down on the quarter before, but had risen year-on-year. It remained above the UK average of 21.2%.

Ulster Bank chief economist Richard Ramsey said the fall in the jobless rate had been accompanied by a growth in full-time employment — which he said reflected a strong demand for labour. The employment rate had grown at a rate of 2.2% year-on-year — the fastest in 17 months.

But Esmond Birnie of the Northern Ireland economic policy centre — part of Ulster University — said the rate of employment had still not returned to the level of 70%, which prevailed before the recession began in 2008.

“In other words, there has been no underlying improvement over the last decade,” the senior economist said.

“In contrast, the most recent UK average employment rate is 75.4% and that UK rate is about 2% points higher than it was back in 2008.”

And he said there was no indication of an underlying improvement in the rate of economic inactivity — monitoring those who are neither in work nor looking for work.

The rate had hovered at around seven percentage points above the UK rate over the last few years, Mr Birnie said.

It encompasses categories of people such as those who are looking after the home, the sick and students.

“On paper, the Northern Ireland economy has substantially resolved the problem of unemployment, but unfortunately a very sizeable challenge in terms of high rate of inactivity continues,” Mr Birnie added.

FSB NI policy chair Tina McKenzie said the fall in unemployment and rise in the employment rate was welcome, “in particular given that our unemployment rate is below the UK average, which isn’t always the case”.

However, economic inactivity remains a significant challenge in Northern Ireland, and while it has decreased this quarter, the gap between us and the rest of the UK is substantial.

Belfast Telegraph

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