Brendan Mulgrew: Where have all the workers gone?

The unemployment rate in Northern Ireland fell to a near-record 2.6 per cent for the three months to April.
The unemployment rate in Northern Ireland fell to a near-record 2.6 per cent for the three months to April. The unemployment rate in Northern Ireland fell to a near-record 2.6 per cent for the three months to April.

Our two older boys have finished their university courses for the year and after a bit of downtime (how do they sleep so much?)

They eventually turned their attention to finding some part time work for the summer.

Within a week one had started a job in a city centre café, the other registered with an employment agency one day and was working a shift in a Belfast hotel the next.

Since signing up the agency affiliated lad has had offers of work every day, sometimes multiple offers, and essentially has a choice of when and where to work.

Most shops I have been in or passed by recently have the familiar sign up saying ‘we are hiring’.

Variations on those signs are in the windows of bars, hotels, gyms, cafés, petrol stations. It appears there is no shortage of employment opportunity. One restaurant owner told me this week they are permanently in recruitment mode, the signs never come down.

All of this is supported by the latest data from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA).

They reported just two weeks ago that the official unemployment rate between February and April was 2.6 per cent, a drop of 0.6 per cent from the previous quarter. In the same period the number of people aged between 16-64 in employment rose by 1.5 per cent to 70 per cent.

We are effectively at full employment, with not enough people available to fill the jobs on offer.

It is a similar phenomenon down south. The Irish recruitment website, Indeed, reports that the number of job vacancies is up by 50 per cent compared to pre pandemic levels.

At the same time though official Government figures show that there is a record number of people in employment in the State, 2.5 million people.

That number grew by the huge figure of 275,000 in just the first quarter of this year. Unemployment which soared during lockdown to 30 per cent has virtually disappeared.

So across the island, north and south, we have more people in work than ever before, lower unemployment than in the past and more job vacancies than ever. It’s a formula which does not compute.

Where have all the workers gone? There could be a number of factors in play.

Covid, lockdown and working from home undoubtedly caused a number of people to re-evaluate their work life balance and it seems that some are choosing to work less hours, to go part time and spend more time at home.

It's a personal lifestyle choice and good luck to anyone who has opted into that more leisurely pace.

While we have record numbers in employment, it is clear that the number of people classed as ‘economically inactive’ is the highest level in the UK.

The number of people of working age classed as economically inactive is almost at 30 per cent. Taking out full time students and those who decide not to enter the workforce, it still amounts to far too many people who could be in work and are not.

This has been a long standing problem in Northern Ireland, it surely is linked to our troubled past and it will be interesting to see what the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in London says about this when it publishes the outcome of a recently concluded inquiry.

Pivotal, the independent policy think tank reported in December last year that two-thirds of Northern Ireland students who study overseas do not come back here to work, they actively choose to forge a career and settle their family life away from Northern Ireland.

In 2019 there were 17,000 such students, mainly scattered throughout Scotland and England and in a detailed analysis called ‘Should I stay or should I go?’

They cite issues such as political instability, community disharmony and intolerance of minorities as among the reasons they choose to leave and not come back.

Our politicians have a responsibility here to address those issues and work to create a society that attracts young people back home. When a brain drain becomes a self inflicted wound on the economy, it is surely time to act?

Put simply, our population of 1.9 million people is not enough, we need more people to live in Northern Ireland.

Belfast City Council has a target of increasing the population of Belfast by 66,000 by 2035, but it is not clear at all how this ambition is to be achieved.

If we are to attract more people to live in or close to the city centre we must move away from the old model of a city centre based entirely high street retail.

Culture, the arts, quality hospitality offerings are among the things that attract young people in particular to decide to live in, or return to, a specific location.

Politicians can argue about the protocol, stamp their feet and refuse to get back to the Assembly but that’s missing the big picture.

Too many young people are voting with their feet and there is a responsibility on us all to give them a reason to stay.

Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner at MW Advocate ( Follow him on Twitter at @brendanbelfast