North's economy grows - but while 34,000 jobs come, migrants will go

The UUEPC report says migrants have been filling the low-skilled jobs (such as fruit-picking) that Northern Ireland workers don't want
Gary McDonald Business Editor

NORTHERN Ireland's economy grew by a stronger-than-expected 1.4 per cent last year, and the upwards trend will continue for the remainder of this decade, albeit perhaps a shade slower, a think-tank is forecasting.

It says that in the next decade, despite many lower-valued added posts likely to be automated and many migrant workers set to leave, some 34,000 jobs will be created, mostly in sectors like professional services/sciences (6,800), hospitality (6,600), administration services (6,400) and health/social work (4,100).

And it points to the "sufficient progress" in the Brexit talks which is creating greater certainty for businesses, therefore allowing them to plan and invest for the future.

The scenarios are outlined in the latest Winter Outlook document from the respected Ulster University Economic Policy Centre (UUEPC), with the report pointing to a better growth spurt in 2017 than many had predicted at 1.4 per cent.

It forecasts that growth in Northern Ireland this year will be 1.2 per cent, then 1.1 per cent in 2019, 1.2 per cent in 2020 and 1.5 per cent in 2021.

"For the first time in several years the three engines of global economic growth - the US, China and the EU - are all posting higher growth at the same time, which is providing some relief to both the UK and Northern Ireland economies as increased exports are going some way to offset the squeeze in consumer spending," said UUEPC director Gareth Hetherington.

The report refers to "global trade winds but local headwinds", and focuses particularly on the migrant issue in Northern IReland as well as unemployment and inactivity, and the threat of automation.

But it cautions that the generally optimistic picture is paints "should not eclipse the challenges locally in terms of the absence of the Assembly, slowing job growth and squeezed incomes."

The outlook says migrant labour is playing an increasingly important role in the Northern Ireland economy, rising from just 4.7 per cent of the total workforce in 2004 to more than 10 per cent today.

But while it remains one of the lowest migrant-dependent regions in the UK, the report says that "migrants seem to be taking the jobs Northern Ireland workers don't want", pointing to the fact that approximately 83 per cent of the increase in low-skilled jobs between 2014 and 2016 were taken by migrant labour.

Mr Hetherington said: "If the number of in-bound migrants falls significantly, local employers will be faced with a number of options - either encourage more local people back into the labour market, possibly through higher wages; increase levels of investment in labour-saving technology; or move to other jurisdictions with easier access to foreign labour."

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