Belfast Telegraph

A wave of top quality jobs boosts confidence

By Margaret Canning

Job announcements from both indigenous and foreign companies have come thick and fast over the last few months. We ask whether it's a sign of a revival in the local jobs market and in the economy as a whole

The first three months of 2011 have seen an explosion in the number of new jobs announced by Invest NI for Northern Ireland.

From law firms to window makers, we've heard of 1,800 new openings in the Northern Ireland jobs market since January 2011, when Linden Foods got the ball rolling with 85 new posts.

Some will be filled over the next three years and other firms, such as Randox and Allen & Overy, have begun the recruitment process almost immediately.

Recruitment company Forde May has surveyed the Belfast Telegraph's own Jobfinder publication over the past quarter in a bid to discern trends in the job market, which are a consequence of a rush by Invest NI to avail of foreign direct investment opportunities before a change in EU State Aid rules, and recruitment efforts by other firms and public sector bodies.

Forde May said the number of job advertisements so far this year do show a small increase - but compared to other years, using a moving annual total (MAT) an overall slowdown is still apparent.

Indeed, Ulster Bank chief economist Richard Ramsey points out that there have been 41,000 jobs lost since the second quarter of 2008 - and including self-employed posts, there have been 45,000 to 50,000 job losses, according to his calculations.

"If there were a maximum of 3,000 jobs created in the last quarter, for every subsequent quarter you would need to see no further job losses, and a further 3,000 job creations every quarter for four years, to get us back to where we were in 2008," Mr Ramsey said.

"Jobs which have been lost in construction will never return. And for a variety of reasons, we will not see a regrowth in the sectors where growth was in the last decade - retail, the public sector and construction."

It emerges as one of the strongest sectors from Forde May's research, with 166 jobs advertised accounting for 13% of the total.

"Many of these are a result of the excellent work of Invest NI over the last few years coming to fruition," founder and managing director Forde May said.

"It is great to see companies like First Derivatives in Newry, Deloitte and KANA (formerly Lagan Technologies) creating new jobs.

"We also have the likes of Aepona, Kainos and Equiniti-ICS planning open days to interest people in software engineering.

"There is little doubt that IT is certainly an area to be in at present - in fact there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the demand for good programmers is pushing up salary levels in spite of the overall economic situation."

However, the executive recruitment firm's research has detected that there were fewer jobs advertised in the first quarter of 2011 compared to a year earlier. As predicted, jobs were up on the last quarter of the year.

"Examination of the results for the first quarter of 2011 does indicate a small increase of just under 100 additional jobs. However, the aspect for concern is the fact that the total for the first quarter this year stands at 1,321 compared with the first quarter in 2010 which stood at 1,651, that is 330 more vacant jobs this time last year.

"Reasons for this are not readily apparent but there does seem to be a slowing down in the time taken to fill posts. This seems to be a combination of cautiousness on behalf of many firms.

"At higher level executive jobs, many employers are becoming more choosy and will not make an appointment unless they are 100% convinced they have found the right person.

"Candidates are also becoming more choosy and often it's a case of 'stick to the devil you know'." Forde May's analysis was carried out against a backdrop of growing unemployment, with the rate up from 6.3% in January 2010 to 8% last month.

Almost 2,000 jobs were lost in the last quarter of 2010, many in the construction sector - and above the 1,210 vacancies advertised in Jobfinder in the same period.

It seems jobs aren't being advertised or created rapidly enough to take people from the dole queues and back into the workplace.

But Mr May said: "It would be wrong to be too negative about the job market in Northern Ireland. While Northern Ireland attracts proportionately more foreign direct investment than any other part of the UK it is still less than a third of that attracted by the Republic of Ireland.

"The recent more favourable Westminster consideration of possibly giving the local Executive powers to reduce corporation tax is encouraging. When/if this happens it won't be a 'magic bullet' but should really help market Northern Ireland if the 'headline' tax rate is the same or lower than that in the Republic."

"Other initiatives are afoot including the need to rebalance the economy.

"The Jobs Plan is the first joint policy document by eight of Northern Ireland's leading business organisations and sets out a framework which includes a comprehensive agenda for real change in the local economy, one in which the private sector will take the lead in providing jobs and investment.

"While corporation tax cuts and rebalancing are long term (25 year) objectives we need to build quickly on the present and on other strong sectors such as food, and not just rely on IT."

The food sector has also shown a growth spurt, growing by 3.3% in 2009.

"Taken overall, job opportunities may indeed be slowing and in some sectors, for example construction, actually continuing to decline, there are other sectors showing promise. The whole 'green scene' including renewables such as wind energy continue to expand.

"One can point to the plans of Belfast Harbour and Danish firm, DONG Energy, one of the leading energy groups in northern Europe, have to reach an agreement which could make Belfast one of the UK's leading renewable energy hubs.

"DONG Energy is progressing a number of offshore wind farm projects in the Irish Sea and its intention is to use Belfast Harbour as a base for their construction and operation."

Last year, around 1,200 new jobs were announced by Invest NI, with call centre Rigney Dolphin hogging the most new jobs as the Irish call centre company said it would open a centre with 297 staff in Londonderry. In the first three months of the year, there have been eight significant jobs announcements (see panel), six of which have brought hundreds of jobs each.

The biggest was medical kits firm Randox with 242 jobs, and the smallest was packaging business Greiner, whose expansion will bring 12 new people on board.

But why this year's bonanza? The reason is simple.

With changes in the rules governing European State Aid, economic development agency Invest NI was under pressure to make decisions on foreign direct investment before January.

The deluge of announcements we have seen is unlikely to continue for the rest of the year.

A spokeswoman for Invest NI said: "Since January 2011, almost 1,800 new jobs have been announced by both local and externally-owned companies as opportunities have been converted into firm projects.

"These have come from a variety of sectors including manufacturing, software development, computer services, food, automotive, financial services, healthcare and legal services.

"They include companies such as Camden Group, Heritage, Kana Software, Schrader, First Derivatives, Randox, Allen & Overy, Fidessa, Linden Foods and Label One.

"We were mindful of changes to EU State Aid which came into force in January 2011 and a significant focus was placed on securing many of these projects in advance of the New Year."

Economist John Simpson said: "Invest NI had to approve a large number of applications very quickly to so that they could avail of rules applying in 2010 rather than the new rules on state aid for 2011.

"But even with the bunching effect, it was still a useful additional set of foreign direct investment for Northern Ireland in circumstances where the economy is still being hard hit by recession."

Jobs Woes Worldwide

While the local job market looks to be improving, the affects of recession are still impacting less developed countries. The United Nations said 205m people were unemployed in 2010, nearly 28m more than in 2007. Worldwide, 78m young people were unemployed in 2010, well above the pre-crisis level of 73.5m in 2007, but down from 80m in 2009.