Some progress in NI labour market but still a mixed picture

Wednesday’s data from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) show continued decline in unemployment to 3.2% in the quarter November 2017-January 2018. That is a record low and lower than the UK average of 4.3% (comparable EU and Republic of Ireland figures were 7.3% and 6.2% respectively). [Note 1]

The latest NISRA job growth figures are similarly up-beat: according to the Quarterly Employment Survey, in the year to December 2017 the total number of employees grew by 15,090 or 2%. Most sectors shared in that growth. There was even some (albeit small) growth in manufacturing and the public sector. A healthy growth rate of 2% in jobs contrasts with the available indications that Northern Ireland economic growth last year was about 1.5% [Note 2]; by implication the total productivity of the Northern Ireland economy was dropping.

The employment rate edged up by 0.5% points over the year to 69.8% (i.e. 69.8% was the proportion of 16 to 64 year olds in work). However, that rate is still more than 5% points behind the UK average (75.2%). The most recent Northern Ireland employment rate is only a little better than it was ten years ago.

There are some good results but, just as we should not confuse a single day of good weather with Spring, there are grounds for caution.

Ten years on from the banking crisis there is little sign of trend growth in Northern Ireland’s employment rate. If anything the gap relative to the UK average has widened.

Northern Ireland’s economic inactivity rate remains close to 28% with a gap relative to the UK average of about 7% points. And we have yet to see the impact in the figures of the big job redundancies announced since the start of the year.

Mr Mark Magill, Senior Economist at the Economic Policy Centre added,

“One of the positives in this data is that total full-time employment  of males, as of December 2017, has returned to its pre-downturn (2008) peak levels”.

“A strong jobs performance in the manufacturing and construction sectors have contributed to this, accounting for seven tenths of the increase in male employee jobs in the past 12 months”.


  1. Each month NISRA also publishes a figure on the total number of (Job Seekers Allowance JSA) claimants. One of the consequences of changes in benefit regulations under welfare reform has been that the JSA series was no longer felt to be meaningful measure of unemployment more broadly defined NISRA have therefore introduced a new experimental data series which measures the total number of JSA claimants plus those Universal Credit claimants who are unemployed and actively seeking work. According to this measure there were 28,700 claimants in February, a reduction of 100 on the month.
  2. The Economic Policy Centre’s estimate of output (gross value added, GVA) growth in 2017 was 1.4%.