Companies in Northern Ireland are planning to cut the size of their workforce over the next three months, a shock survey said today.
Global recruitment giant Manpower claimed the province was the only region in the UK in which respondents to its survey said they planned to let people go over the third-quarter of the year.
Company bosses here were the least optimistic of all UK regions, with every other part revealing that they planned to increase their headcounts.
The survey's claims are at odds with other, more positive economic data for Northern Ireland, including the Ulster Bank's monthly purchasing managers index, which has been reporting rising staffing levels and intentions to maintain recruitment among companies.
Manpower said that while plenty of big companies were hiring in Belfast, there was not the same rush to hand out P60s elsewhere in the province.
Amanda White, operations manager at Manpower, said: "As the biggest city in Northern Ireland, Belfast is leading the way in terms of hiring – but head outside the capital and job prospects are much less positive.
"Belfast is a hot spot for inward investment, and we're seeing strong demand for candidates in hospitality and tourism, as well as those with skills in the STEM areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
"However, there's an ongoing talent mismatch, and that means we're not seeing any noticeable improvement in youth unemployment, with large numbers of 16-24 year-olds still looking for work.
"Anyone who up-skills in science and technology will be at an immediate advantage in today's market."
But there were some chinks of light in the mainly gloomy survey. Ms White said there was reason for optimism in the supply chain and logistics field.
There was also evidence of candidates becoming more confident in their potential for new roles – while a lack of candidates for customer service and support roles could increase salaries in that area.
But the survey's overall finding jars with other economic surveys, including the monthly Ulster Bank purchasing managers' index.
The latest PMI report for the month of May found that staffing levels were growing in the manufacturing, services and retail sectors, while construction had experienced its biggest improvement in activity since the survey began in 2002.
The Manpower Employment Outlook Survey is based on responses from over 2,000 employers, and asks them whether they intend to hire more workers or cut their workforce in the next quarter.