Number of Protestants working full-time to be eclipsed by Catholics in labour market first in Northern Ireland
The number of Catholics in Northern Ireland's workforce will soon outnumber Protestants, it has been predicted.
Professor Peter Shirlow's forecast follows the publication of new data that shows the region now has an even split in the religious background of its workforce in full-time employment for the first time.
The latest Labour Force Survey religion report, which examines working age and economic activity, shows a dramatic change in the composition of the workforce over the past two decades.
The break-even point was reached in 2014, the year that provides the most up-to-date data for the study.
Prior to this, the report reveals, there was a consistently higher level of working age economic activity among the Protestant community compared to the Catholic community until a convergence began to materialise.
In 1992, 70% of all working age Protestants were in employment compared to 54% of working age Catholics but, 22 years on, those rates had moved to 67% and 66%.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Professor Shirlow, director of the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool, said the report reflects the current demography of Northern Ireland society.
"There are two different trends at play," he said.
"One is that the Protestant population is getting older and removing themselves from the labour force by going into retirement.
"The other change, over the last 20 or 30 years, is that more Catholics have been joining the labour force due to a higher birth rate. So what we've got now is a labour force that reflects the demography of Northern Ireland society."
He added: "At some point in the future - in two to three years - a Catholic majority will be the labour force."
Tina McKenzie, Northern Ireland director of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), which represents recruitment agencies, said the even split in the workforce is "unsurprising".
"It's good that Northern Ireland is getting a more representative population within the workforce," she said.
"We don't find that people discriminate on the basis of religion at all.
"It's something of the past and certainly not something we see now.
"When making business decisions, people want the right person for the job. They're not interested in religion."
The Catholic community in Northern Ireland has historically experienced higher levels of economic inactivity and unemployment.
There have also been relatively fewer senior positions in the workplace for Catholics, and this has been attributed to a number of different factors including "social, geographical and historical influences".
Fair employment legislation requires public bodies to promote "equality of opportunity" today between people on a number of grounds, including religion, and the Equality Commission also monitors all private sector firms with more than 10 employees.
While the economic activity rates of those of working age remained higher in 2014 for Protestants than Catholics, the gap has closed dramatically.
When the figures are examined more closely there are also some disparities in the workforce among those aged 25-34 years of age, with 45% from the Protestant community economically active compared to 55% of Catholics of the same age.
On a general basis, the latest statistics show workers from the Protestant community still accounted for a "larger proportion" of those in managerial, director and senior official roles.
They also held slightly more jobs in skilled trade occupations and "elementary" occupations.
This compared to workers from the Catholic communities, who were more likely to be employed in professional occupations.
According to the report, the sector with the highest proportion of workers from a Protestant background was agriculture, forestry and fishing.
Meanwhile, a significant number of Catholics were employed in the construction, finance and insurance, education and health and social work sectors.
The report also looks at who earns more and in this regard the survey reveals little monetary difference.
In 2014, the median hourly wage rate for working age Protestants was £9.23 while Catholics earned £9.63.