Northern Ireland is facing a population time bomb with a rapidly ageing population and unprecedented numbers of young people moving away.
A new report on our population level has revealed that migration out of the country is at the highest level on record. With falling birth rates, it is estimated that there will be more older people than children by 2027.
Northern Ireland's Statistics and Research Agency said that between July 2012 and June 2013, the number of people living here increased by just 6,100, the lowest level of population growth since 2000/1.
The report has raised concerns over what is being done to keep our brightest and best young people from leaving. It has also led to further fears over the health of the local economy with one in 10 now aged over 70.
The report reveals:
Population statistics form a part of the Barnett formula' – the mechanism for distributing funding to the three devolved Governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – meaning a potential drop in our public expenditure.
Dr David Marshall, the statistician from NISRA who helped compile the results, said that last year saw the lowest population growth in a decade with emigration exceeding immigration, adding: "These important statistics inform the allocation of public funds in Northern Ireland." The figures, which portray a bleak working environment where there will be fewer young people to take up vitally important job roles, will also be a hammer-blow for those trying to revitalise the economy by attracting more foreign direct investment.
Soaring migration numbers fly in the face of claims about our well-educated and eager would-be workforce, and potentially contradicts a raft of reports which show that our economy is growing.
One recruitment expert has given his views on how to entice young people back to Northern Ireland.
However Nigel Smyth, director of the CBI in Northern Ireland, said young people and businesses should capitalise on the opportunities being presented by an ageing population.
"While the population continues to grow it is disappointing that more people are leaving Northern Ireland than coming here," he said.
"The challenge we face is the need to create an environment where more businesses are encouraged to invest and create more jobs and opportunities for our young people.
"The NISRA statistics confirm our changing demographics with a rising number of elderly people. This provides more opportunities for businesses servicing the needs of these consumers."
Stephen Farry, Minister for Employment and Learning, said: "My department is committed to supporting young people into employment by providing skills and training. Skills are the driver of positive economic change, and are also a powerful tool to promote individual opportunity and to achieve greater social inclusion.
"The new Northern Ireland Strategy Apprenticeships which I recently announced is central to transforming our skills landscape. My department is reviewing youth training for 16-18 year olds to ensure it reflects the changing needs of our economy and offers a progression pathway for young people into an apprenticeship, further education or training, or a sustainable job."
Bob Crozier (37), Hong Kong, enterprise community manager for global insurer AIA.
I left Armagh to study economics at the University of Stirling in 1995.
“While there I began to work at Prudential as a summer student after my second year and went back to work for them after graduation in 2000, when I got married to my wife Lee-Ann.
“We decided to travel to Australia, however the opportunity arose to come to Hong Kong first to work for AIA.
“Had I stayed in Northern Ireland, I would have probably studied accountancy and worked in Belfast.
“In 1995 times were uncertain, the ink wasn't yet dry on the Good Friday Agreement and it seemed like Northern Ireland's politicians were focused on everything but the stuff that mattered to a young man — education and the possibility of a job at the end.
“Government can help by focusing on the things that matter to people — jobs, schools and healthcare.
“I would come back for fresh air, though.
“Hong Kong is a great place, a meritocratic culture where hard work pays and is recognised, but the pollution can be really bad.
“I fear for my unborn child's well-being.”
David Johnson (41), London/Manchester, TV/radio presenter and creative director at @AerialVideoTV.
I left Northern Ireland 20 years ago and have been in England for almost as long as I was in Northern Ireland.
“I wanted to do a media degree which was not available in Northern Ireland at the time so went to study at the University of Lincoln.
“Lots of people told me to go over and see how it was. A lot of people back then said that they would come back and they never did, and I was one of them.
“I did fully intend to come back, I wasn’t just saying it, but it never happened. There were just never the opportunities I had here in England.
“I am proud to say that I come from Northern Ireland and I will always fly the flag, but I worked in several radio stations in Northern Ireland and there was no further that I could go, whereas here I have been able to do much more radio and television work.
“The public transport network is very poor compared to what is available in Manchester, Birmingham or London.
“I think if the media course I wanted to study in Belfast had been available I may have stayed, but even then, there are only so many places you can work if you want a job in the media, so I think I would always have felt the need to leave.”
Michael Gowdie (41), Perth, Australia, transformational consultant/director.
I left at 18 years old for uni in Dundee to study mathematics with business, and later in life I did an MBA, which if I had stayed in Northern Ireland, I wouldn't have done.
“My parents influenced me to go and travel the world as opportunities would be greater.
“Northern Ireland will always be home to me, but Scotland was home from home and I got a job straight from uni.
“When I finished uni in 1996 I never thought of returning home.
“In Scotland I got the opportunity to work for some great companies and hold some senior level roles that have enabled me to travel the world. I think if I had stayed in Northern Ireland I wouldn't have grown as a person as much.
“I'm currently looking at possibly returning to the UK from Perth. To be honest, I haven't even thought about Northern Ireland as I don't think the opportunities are there in terms of career.
“Family life, I think, would be great, but it still has the stigma of the Troubles hanging over it.
“I know every time I used to fly into the International Airport or come off the ferry in Larne I always got —and still do get — a butterflies feeling, because I was coming home.
“It’s about ensuring there are opportunities for young people to grow and develop, as well as see what the wider world has to offer.
“For the likes of me and others who have left, organisations should be looking at how they bring individuals back with experiences and skills to make NI a better place and also attract top businesses due to skilled population.”
By Michael Noble
How do you keep our young people from leaving our shores in search of a better life? Offer them the chance of one here. Sounds simplistic, but there is a detailed plan in place to offer great jobs with decent wages in a sector which can only grow: the digital sector.
Recently Momentum published a plan to create 20,000 jobs in the sector over the next five-to-10 years, through making changes in our education system so that we produce enough graduates to meet demand.
Sounds fanciful? Right now, in Northern Ireland, according to sectoral skills body Align IT, there are at least 1,000 unfilled posts in the digital sector. That's 1,000 jobs, with good salaries, just waiting for people to fill them.
If you are travelling through Belfast city centre, a quick look at advertising hoardings will show you just how keen the digital sector companies like Kainos and Cybersource are to hire people. The problem is, while the Executive is doing a lot of work to bring more graduates through, it's difficult to do it quickly enough to fulfil demand.
Our strategy aims to speed that process up and make the changes within our education sector which are required to support that process.
Put simply, we want to see all children, from the age of eight, taught how to write code, as they have committed to doing in England, and are well on their way to achieving in countries like Estonia.
Not everyone will be good at it, and of course not everyone will want a career in the digital sector. But if we change the education system in this way, we will change Northern Ireland, as we will soon be producing a workforce which not only knows how to operate a computer, but also how to programme that computer.
The outworkings of this initiative are enormous, and they are also enormously challenging. There is a lot of work to do to upskill our teachers, and this will take time, but in my opinion it is the single most important thing we can do to get match-fit for the 21st century and provide the environment which encourages more foreign investment, and equally importantly inspires a generation, to start and grow their own Google, their own Facebook, their own PayPal.
There are already many people working in the sector in Northern Ireland, and there is room for enormous growth. The question is, how much of that growth can we secure by taking the action required, now.
Michael Noble is chief executive of Momentum, a trade body for the digital sector in Northern Ireland