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More people on payroll in Northern Ireland, but employment levels still lower than pre-pandemic


Ulster Bank chief economist Richard Ramsey

Ulster Bank chief economist Richard Ramsey

Ulster Bank chief economist Richard Ramsey

New statistics reveal that unemployment rates in Northern Ireland have decreased for the ninth month in a row, but a top economist has warned that the levels may be “falling for the wrong reasons”.

Chief economist for Northern Ireland at Ulster Bank, Richard Ramsey described the figures as “positive” which showed HMRC payroll data hit a record high for the sixth month running in November. 

“But worth noting that NI’s unemployment rate is falling for the wrong reasons. Employment rate decreased by 0.8pps (percentage points) to 70.4% while economic inactivity (those neither in work or looking for work) rose by 1.0pps to 26.9%.”

Mr Ramsey noted that the public sector was at an all-time high, but “private sector employment (563,120 jobs) was 0.8% below (-4,390 jobs) pre-pandemic levels”.

The latest data published by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra) shows that the number of payrolled employees in NI is the highest on record and it is the sixth consecutive month that employee numbers have been above pre-Covid levels.

Earnings from the HMRC PAYE indicated that employees had an average monthly salary of £1,848 in November 2021, an increase of £68 over the year.

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There are around 44,500 people claiming benefits as of November, making up 4.5% of the workforce. This is 30% below the recent peak in May 2020, and 46% higher than the pre-pandemic count in March 2020.

The last year has also shown the lowest rolling 12-month total of proposed redundancies since 2014, with 2,280 redundancies proposed, 79% less than in the previous 12 months.

The end of November further saw the third consecutive quarterly increase in employee jobs driven by the services sector, with September 2021 estimates showing that employee jobs have almost returned to the pre-pandemic December 2019 level, and it marks the first annual increase since June 2020.

All broad industry sectors apart from construction experienced an increase in employee jobs over the year to September 2021, with the services sector reporting the biggest annual increase of over 6,100 jobs.

The construction sector experienced a decrease of 5.4% (1,930 jobs) over the year to the same date.

Private sector and public sector jobs increased both over the quarter and the year, but as Mr Ramsey pointed out, private sector roles remain below pre-Covid levels.

The Labour Force Survey shows the total number of hours worked between August and October of this year as increased by 5.2%. Compared to the pre-pandemic levels in November to January 2020, the total number of hours worked in August to October was 3.6% below,

While payrolled employees and payroll earnings continue to be above the pre-pandemic level, and employee jobs almost returned to the pre-pandemic peak level in September, employment levels (which includes self-employed) and hours worked have yet to return to these pre-pandemic levels and similarly claimant count, unemployment and economic inactivity all remain above it.

More data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) has shown that across the UK, the jobs market has strengthened further despite furlough ending as the number of payrolled workers jumped by a record 257,000 last month.

The official figures say there is "still no sign" that the closing of the furlough support scheme in September has affected the British jobs market, with the number of UK workers on payrolls rising by 0.9% between October and November to 29.4 million.

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