Belfast Telegraph

Mixed message as Northern Ireland's jobless total falls but employment remains stagnant

By John Mulgrew

Dole queues in Northern Ireland shrank at the fastest rate in 15 years in the year to September, latest statistics show - but employment levels are still stagnant.

The number of people claiming Jobseeker's Allowance fell by 1,100 last month.

And the separate unemployment rate measure was also down to 6% - narrowing the gap with the UK, where the rate is 5.4%, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Out of 40,700 people claiming benefits, 11,470 were under 25 - down 2.4% over the month, and down by nearly 20% over the year.

Claimant numbers were down 11,200 over the year - and the increase of 21.6% was the biggest since April 2000.

But it's still a mixed bag for Northern Ireland's workforce.

While overall joblessness levels fell, the percentage of the unemployed who had been on the dole for a year or more went up slightly to 59.1%.

And economic inactivity remained stubbornly high, with 27.6% of 16-to-64-year-olds out of the job market and not looking for work - the highest level of 12 UK regions and well above the average of 22.1%.

And the overall employment rate remained unchanged over the quarter at 67.9%.

Danske Bank chief economist Angela McGowan said it was "worrying that the overall employment level in Northern Ireland has not picked up".

She said: "This week's labour market report for Northern Ireland was rather mixed, in terms of good news and bad.

"It is all very well for the Treasury and the UK Government to focus on rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy away from the public sector and from benefit dependency, but without targeted initiatives to grow the private sector and reduce dependency, Northern Ireland will continue to struggle."

She reiterated ongoing concern amid Northern Ireland's current political instability, and said: "The region urgently needs political leadership".

Esmond Birnie, PwC's chief economist in Northern Ireland, said the long-term unemployment levels remained a cause for concern.

"One key statistical measure is the employment rate, where the overall UK rate has jumped from about 70% in 2010 to 73.6% currently.

"That is a direct measure of the impact of economic recovery on productivity and job creation - however, Northern Ireland's current 68% employment rate has remained largely unchanged since late 2010.

"This reflects a failure to increase the competitiveness of the Northern Ireland economy, where productivity has actually declined and where there are no targets for improvement in the 2011-15 Programme for Government."

Across the UK, unemployment fell to a seven-year low, while a record number of people are in work.

The jobless total dipped by 79,000 to 1.7 million in the quarter to August, the lowest figure since the summer of 2008, giving a jobless rate of 5.4%.

Employment increased by 140,000 in the same three months to 31 million, the highest since records began in 1971.

James Sproule, chief economist at the Institute of Directors, said: "Another month of impressive jobs figures and strong wage growth show that the business-led recovery is well on track.

"Despite uncertainties at home and abroad, employers have continued to create jobs, raise productivity and boost pay."

Belfast Telegraph