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Jobless figures lag behind the rest of UK

Unemployment in Northern Ireland fell for the first time in 27 months in April, but the local job market is still lagging the recovery in the rest of the UK.

The number of people claiming unemployment benefit fell by 200 last month to 55,400 after more than two years of increases.

However, the 0.4% decrease was the smallest among the 12 UK regions, with the UK as a whole recording a monthly drop of 27,100 or 1.8% in the number of people on Jobseekers allowance, down to 1.52 million.

The total number of unemployed in the UK, including those not eligible for benefits, rose by 53,000 to 2.5 million during the three months to March, meaning the unemployment total is now at its highest level since December 1994.

And in Northern Ireland the wider measure of unemployment increased by 6,000 over the same period, pushing the unemployment rate up to 6.7% from 6% in the previous quarter.

Northern Bank chief economist Angela McGowan said the new figures raise big questions.

"Although at 6.2% the local unemployment rate for quarter one remains below the UK average of 8% and is currently better than the prevailing rates in most Western economies, there are nonetheless growing causes for concern within the local workforce and labour market.

"The proportion of local unemployed who are classified as long-term unemployed is 37.9%. In addition, the proportion of jobless 18-24 year olds rose to 16.1% in the first quarter," she said.

The labour force survey showed there were 774,000 people in employment in the first quarter, a slight rise on the previous three months.

Ulster Bank economist Richard Ramsey said he saw some positives in the figures.

"One of the most encouraging signs is the rise in the number of unfilled vacancies in Northern Ireland. This can be viewed as an indication of labour demand.

In March, there were 6,409 unfilled vacancies, this represents a rise of 50% from January's low," he said.

However, he said there may be dark times ahead and warned of "a secondary surge" in construction-related job losses over the next 12-18 months.

Mr Ramsey explained: "This will be linked to cuts in capital investment, which is likely to bear the brunt of the forthcoming public expenditure cuts.

"Quite simply, the steeper the cuts the sharper the rise in construction-related unemployment.

"We still expect the unemployment register to swell to around 62,500 later this year with the services sector, notably retail, vulnerable to job losses in the coming months."

Enterprise Minister, Arlene Foster said the latest figures were to be welcomed, but was also not getting carried away.

"Most economic commentators believe that the recovery, when it comes, will follow a pattern of slow growth. However, we can seek to accelerate this growth by actively looking to expand our markets where the opportunity exists," she said.