On paper 2022 proved to be a resilient year for Northern Ireland’s jobs market, but could 2023 see a tightening of belts and strain on the horizon? John Mulgrew speaks to the experts as to what we’re in store for in the months ahead
That is, relatively unscathed. However, what lies ahead for Northern Ireland and the economy as a whole is a tightening in the months ahead.
While the feared double-digit unemployment rate failed to emerge, primarily due to the Government’s furlough scheme and our latest fresh figures show level now falling to 2.8%, it’s predicted the number of roles available could soon recede, while the high watermark for employment and wage growth could be behind us.
“A key theme in the labour market in 2023 is one of ongoing strain and low morale, “ Richard Ramsey, chief economist Northern Ireland, Ulster Bank, tells Ulster Business.
“The number of job vacancies is also expected to reduce in the coming months as Northern Ireland’s recession, particularly within consumer sensitive sectors, takes hold.”
The latest official figures paint a positive picture of Northern Ireland’s recovery from Covid, though.
The latest market release shows that payrolled employee numbers and earnings have both increased over the year.
“The most recent labour market release shows some positives, with unemployment and economic inactivity showing improvement over the year,” Marie-Claire Logue of law firm DWF says.
“A closer look at the figures showed that payrolled employee numbers increased by 0.2% over the month and are 2% above the figure recorded in December 2021. In addition, the report showed that payrolled earnings also increased over the month, by 0.3% and are 6.3% above the figure recorded in December 2021.”
However, the latest official statistics show Northern Ireland entered a technical recession at the end of 2022, while previous UK-wide stats had already indicated that at the time of the last Government budget announcement.
“With inflation set to outpace wage growth for most of the year, poor staff morale and a wave of industrial action looks set to be a given,” Mr Ramsey says.
He says firms will be “walking a tightrope of trying to retain staff but remain profitable or maintain service levels.
“Staff shortages (and low morale) appear to be most acute within the NHS.” Mr Ramsey says the number of vacancies across the wider health service according to one recruitment platform are now running at more than 10 times the level they were pre-pandemic.
“This is likely to get worse before it gets better and we are likely to hear more stories of medical staff emigrating to the likes of Canada, New Zealand and Australia. The challenge for many sectors of the economy is getting staff morale back to pre-pandemic levels.”
Of course, certain industries are continuing to hire, and many are struggling to find the right talent, including across some areas within tech.
However, that’s already a sector which is already under strain on a global level.
“It is noted that even the mighty Amazon is closing warehouses in the UK and shedding jobs,” Mr Ramsey says. “This is a canary in the coalmine for what lies in store.”
Irish technology giant Stripe has already announced job cuts while at the time of going to print Microsoft looked set to make cuts of its own across its global business.
However, closer to home, Liberty IT – the technology arm of the global insurance giant based in Belfast – says it’s on the hunt for new staff and remains in growth mode.
“We have ambitious plans for continued growth in 2023 and beyond and will recruit from interns and graduates, through to leadership roles,” Emma Mullan, senior director of talent at Liberty IT, tells Ulster Business.
“We are passionate about harnessing the potential of all of our teams, and alongside our external recruitment efforts, we will have a continued focus on promoting from within.
“With our 2022 promotions representing 26% of the organisation, it’s clear that we have an abundance of extremely talented technical people in our market and that we can genuinely say, Liberty IT is a great place to come and build a career.
“At Liberty IT, we have incredible talent across our business and that is what sets us apart. While tech is a highly competitive industry, we are continually blown away by the calibre of talent Liberty IT attracts across the UK and Ireland. In addition to recruiting software engineers, we have expanded capabilities in the last few years, particularly in the areas of data science, consultancy and analytics to attract an increasingly diverse group of people to our team.”
Turning to the latest official figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), the number of people made redundant in Northern Ireland last year was at its lowest level in more than 20 hears.
There were 730 confirmed redundancies over the year. That’s the lowest since it began measuring the trend in 2000.
Across the year, 1,570 redundancies had been proposed, and of the 730 roles actually made redundant, 80 had been lost in December.
Along with a 2% rise in the number of people on company payrolls in December, the redundancy figure suggests the jobs market here is proving robust despite economic challenges.
Looking at the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate (the proportion of economically active people aged 16 and over who were unemployed) for the period September to November 2022, it’s now fallen to 2.8% – down 0.3% over the quarter and 0.8% in the last year.
“The proportion of people aged 16 to 64 in work increased by 1.4% over the quarter and increased by 3.3% over the year to 71.3%,” it says. “The total number of weekly hours worked in NI (28.5 million) increased by 6.9% over the quarter and increased by 4.3% over the year.”
And the economic activity rate fells by 1.2% over the quarter, and by 2.8% over the course of the year.
“The latest labour market release shows that payrolled employee numbers and earnings have both increased over the year,” it says. “Measures of total employment (employment rate and hours worked), unemployment and economic inactivity continue to show improvement over the year but have not yet returned to their pre-pandemic position.”
But according to Richard Ramsey, 2023 is set to be a long haul, with one key watchword.
“The challenge for many sectors of the economy is getting staff morale back to pre-pandemic levels. That will be a long haul and is easier said than done. Morale will be the watchword for 2023.”