The percentage of companies across the island of Ireland intending to take on staff is at its highest in five years, according to a major quarterly business survey. The InterTradeIreland Business Monitor, which quizzes firms north and south, said 11% of respondents were planning to take on staff – the highest since 2009.
But there was a slight dip in optimism, with the number of firms in growth mode falling from 37% to 30%.
The optimism on recruitment comes as fertility clinic GCRM-Belfast announced it had taken on 14 new staff – and plans to take on another 16 by 2017 – with the support of Danske Bank.
GCRM-Belfast opened its Edgewater Road clinic last year. It is affiliated with the Glasgow Centre for Reproductive Medicine.
Laboratory director Robbie Kerr said there was growing demand for fertility services in Northern Ireland.
He said around 150 patients had been travelling from Northern Ireland to its Glasgow clinic every year, prompting it to open a standalone clinic in Belfast.
Funding from Danske Bank had enabled it to to buy the required specialist lab equipment, staff the clinic and create a satellite service in the north west.
Meanwhile, well over one-third of businesses (37%) reported an increase in sales to the InterTrade survey.
But exporters could claim an even better sales record, with 55% reporting growing sales.
Nearly 70% of SMEs said they had plans to invest in their companies over the next 12 months.
Dr Eoin Magennis at InterTradeIreland said: "It is encouraging to see such a significant percentage of firms planning to invest and this may reflect a change in businesses focus towards strategies for growth at a time when many firms are expressing cautious optimism about the future."
Manufacturing firms and those who export were the most likely to splash out on their business over the next year.
But the business monitor also found that 82% of firms are not currently exporting – and nearly one in five have a product or service that is suitable for export, but they don't sell it across the border or further afield.
Ann McGregor, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the finding chimed with its own research, which revealed that one in five firms have the potential to export but do not do so.
Ms McGregor said: "Increasing exports is one of the main ways in which Northern Ireland can start to reduce its over-dependence on the public sector and address its low level of productivity vis-a-vis the UK regions.
"Currently Northern Ireland only has 1,500 active goods exporters which is just over 2% of Northern Ireland's registered business base.
"Where internal demand is weak, as has been the case here for some time now, exports can help accelerate recovery.
"It is therefore encouraging that nearly one in five businesses in Northern Ireland has a product or service which is capable of being exported."
Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, welcomed the survey's findings that manufacturers were most likely to invest in their business. But he added: "We are concerned that high energy costs and unfavourable exchange rates for exporters makes it difficult to be competitive. Indeed, we are increasingly hearing from members about losing trade to competitors from the Republic purely on the cost of energy."
And he said engineering firms were upskilling staff and taking on apprentices to counter a scarcity of skilled labour.