Belfast Telegraph

Number of people out of work at its highest since 1997

By Margaret Canning

An extra 600 people signed on for unemployment benefits in January, the highest monthly jump in nearly a year-and-a-half, latest figures show.

According to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra), the jobless total is now 61,500.

The gloomy data follows three job loss announcements in the past week likely to put another 340 people out of work.

Despite January's new jobseekers, the quarterly unemployment rate as measured by the Labour Force Survey fell to 7.2% in the last three months of the year - down 0.1% from the quarter before.

That was below the UK average of 8.4%, the EU rate of 9.8% and the Republic's rate of 14.6%.

Around 40% had been unemployed for one year or more, down 6.3% on a year earlier. The unemployment rate among young people (aged 18-24) was 18.1%, down 4.4% on the year before.

Ulster Bank economist Richard Ramsey said the claimant count was now at its highest level since September 1997 and more than double the 23,500 count of August 2007.

He predicted the trend would continue due to falling orders and lack of demand.

But the economist added: "It is worth remembering that there are certain sectors that have ambitious expansion plans but are unable to increase employment due to a lack of skills and not a lack of demand.

"This feature is particularly apparent within the local ICT/software sector. Therefore it is vital that the local economy aggressively addresses these skills gaps as quickly as possible."

Northern Bank chief economist Angela McGowan said the headline unemployment rate had proved "remarkably resilient" in tough economic conditions.

But some parts of the province, such as the north west and parts of Belfast, were more affected than others.

"In addition, men have a higher unemployment rate than women (9.1% versus 5%) and young people are the worst affected with an unemployment rate of 18.1%," she said.

"Clearly a targeted approach to skills and training courses for those worst affected will help."

Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster said: "This increase in claimants was the largest for several months."

But she said this week's capital investment announcement by the Executive would generate over 2,500 construction jobs.