Belfast Telegraph

Recession clouds the true picture on jobs

Fears of fewer employment opportunities don’t stand up to scrutiny, says Forde May

By Margaret Canning and Clare Weir

Predictions for the 2011 job market are predominantly gloomy — increasing unemployment, job insecurity and falling wages all feature in forecasts for the year.

But a study of the number of job advertisements in the Belfast Telegraph’s Jobfinder by employment consulting firm Forde May suggest there was some improvement in the market in 2010.

Forde May found there were twice as many jobs advertised in the Belfast Telegraph in 2010 than in 2009. The total number of jobs advertised in 2010 (5,351) is approaching twice that advertised in 2009 (2,989).

The firm’s founder, Forde May, said the positive 2010 statistics suggested we had left recession behind.

“It is quite surprising to see the vast increase in the number of jobs advertised, but it is exciting and a good sign for the economy,” Dr May said.

IT and food are the winners in the research, with the pub trade and the construction industry on the wane.

Dr May said that while there was little prospect for now of a return to the relative health enjoyed by the jobs market in 2007, the statistics did at least defy some of the pessimism around the|economy.

The current rate of unemployment in Northern Ireland stands at 7.6% compared to 4% three years ago and the overall claimant count for job seekers last year increased by around 9,000 to 63,000.

One economist has predicted unemployment will go up again this year, to around 65,000.

Dr May said: “The instinct of many people would be to assume the job market was slower in 2010, which many regarded as the first ‘full’ year of our economic recession, than it was in 2009.

“However the data over the two years reminds us to base opinions on facts and not feelings.

“An analysis of jobs advertised in the Belfast Telegraph Jobfinder on a Friday, shows the quarter by quarter variation during 2009 and also 2010.

“As can be seen [see graph] the first quarter figure for 2010 of 1,651 is twice the number of jobs advertised in the same quarter in 2009 of 792.

“The fact that over 1,200 jobs were advertised in the last quarter of 2010 is very encouraging, but even at this rate is will take some time to get the jobless total down to a realistic figure”.

He said that on the negative side, the jobs currently available tend to be lower level and lower salary posts. “There are very few executive level jobs and organisations are still cautious at adding to their overheads when they can avoid it,” he said.

Dr May said that the Jobwatch’ findings suggest IT was the strongest performing sector in 2010.

“If you are IT professional it is useful to know that around 150 IT posts were advertised in the last quarter and that IT jobs continue to be where most vacancies are found,” he said.

He pointed out that food is a growing industry, with estimates that the sector brings £3bn to the Northern Ireland economy annually.

Just this week Dungannon-based Linden Foods announced 85 jobs at a new £10m complex in Tyrone, while 14 food and drink companies from Northern Ireland are hoping to boost exports by exhibiting at two international shows.

Food firms like Finnebrogue and Fivemiletown all achieved Christmas-time listings at stores like Harrods and Marks & Spencer and the health of the food sector is set to continue.

“Food has held its own during the recession. We all have to eat and the local food manufacturing sector is coping well,” said Dr May.

“A recent report prepared for the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association suggests that over the next few years some 15,000 jobs will be created in this sector.

“Many readers will be aware that food price inflation is now a hot topic.

“The December 2010 figure just announced indicates food prices up 4% on the same time last year and there is little doubt that there will be ongoing pressure on everyone in the food supply chain from farmers through to retailers.

“A consequence of this is to force local manufactures to look at innovations in food.”

However, Dr May added that some restaurants are suffering due to the downturn.

“On the negative side of food, local restaurants are, not surprisingly, suffering badly,” he said. Pubs also continue to suffer.

Once the mainstay of Northern Irish cultural life, an industry body has sounded dire warnings of closures and job losses due to a combination of the downturn, the recent snowfall, freeze and thaw, which caused flooding and water cuts and shortages and the VAT rise. Pubs of Ulster has called on the Government to protect the jobs of 35,000 people employed in the sector, warning that pubs face a “precarious” time in the first three months of 2011.

But while pubs and restaurants struggle, Dr May said there were some business skills for which demand would grow.

He predicted that sales would be another sector which would fight back in 2011.

“It is vital that all companies try to hold onto, or preferably increase, their sales,” he said.

“This has led to a demand for sales executives or business developers as they are increasingly being called.”

And IT would have another good year, Dr May forecast.

“I would expect to see continual growth in this area, and there is currently a shortage, with new start ups and the unstoppable momentum of the digital age,” he said.

Construction in decline

No sector has lost more jobs in the recession than construction. Lobby group the Construction Employers’ Federation estimates that 26,000 people have lost their jobs in the last three years with employment in the industry dropping from 87,000 at the end of 2007 to 61,000 at the end of last year.

The federation has warned that 30,000 more builders’ jobs could go. Of those who lost their jobs, CEF chief John Armstrong says around 13,000 are claiming unemployment benefit, others sought jobs outside NI, while some found work in other industries.

IT sector still growing

IT is a growing area for Northern Ireland and even through the worst of the economic downturn has managed to retain employee numbers.

Industry body Momentum estimates that 22,000 work in IT here, of whom 15,000 are employed by IT firms.

Michael Noble, the body’s skills manager, says the industry is forecast to grow by nearly 3% year-on-year — which he said is “well ahead” of any other |sector.

New IT entrants in 2010 include Indian firm L&T Infotech, while Cit, First Derivatives and All State have expanded.

Licensed trade is drying up

The licensed trade is one of the sectors suffering job losses as cheap supermarket alcohol prompts more and more people to drink at home.

Pubs of Ulster chief executive Colin Neill said thousands could face the dole and up to 200 pubs may close this year.

Revealing seven pubs went under in the first week of January, he added: “Figures show the licensed trade currently employs 35,000 people. It is expected this figure will fall further over the next year. We have been inundated with requests seeking guidance on reducing staff hours and redundancy.”

Food and drink on the up

One industry on the up is food and drink. Recent research for the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA) said that around 20% of Northern Ireland’s private sector employment is derived from the agri-food sector. It claims that, despite the recession, the food and drink industry grew by 3.3% in 2009.

The report also highlights potential to grow sales to £4.5bn annually and to sustain up to 107,000 jobs.

There are 20,000 direct employees in food and drink, and 72,000 people working in farming and indirect services.

Belfast Telegraph